Mention of Hunt and Description of Hunters, 1823

Featured image: Alfred Jacob Miller, watercolour, “Caravan en Route,” (1867). Source: Library and Archives Canada [LAC] Mikan no. 2833881.

William H. Keating, Narrative of an Expedition to the Source of the St. Peter’s River, Lake Winnepeek, Lake of the Woods &c. &c. vol. 2 (Philadelphia: H.C. Carey and I. Lea, 1824), 38-43.

“Two principal settlements were formed, one at Fort Douglas, which is at the confluence of the Assiniboin [sic] and Red Rivers and the other one hundred and twenty miles by water above that, and near the mouth of a small stream named by the Chippewas Anepeminan sipi, from a small red berry termed by them anepeminan, which name has been shortened and corrupted into Pembina*, (Viburnum oxycoccos.)

[* The b has been introduced by Europeans; the theme of the word is Nepin, summer, and Minan, berry.]

Peter Rindisbacher, watercolour, “View of the two Company Forts on the level prairie at Pembina on the Red River, and surprise by the savages at nightfall of May 25, 1822,” (1822). Source LAC Mikan n. 2835805.

The Hudson’s Bay Company had a fort here [Pembina], until the spring of 1823, when observations, made by their own astronomers, led them to suspect it was south of the boundary line, and they therefore abandoned it, removing all that could be sent down the river with advantage. The Catholic clergyman, who had been at this place, was at the same time removed to Fort Douglas, and a large and neat chapel built by the settlers for their accommodation is now fast going to decay. The settlement [at Fort Douglas] consists of about three hundred and fifty souls, residing in sixty log houses or cabins; they do not appear to possess the qualifications for good settlers; few of them are farmers; most of them are half-breeds, who having been educated by their Indian mothers, have imbibed the roving, unsettled, and indolent habits of the Indians. Accustomed from their early infancy to the arts of the fur trade, which may be considered as one of the worst schools for morals, they have acquired no small share of cunning and artifice. These form at least two-thirds of the male inhabitants. The rest consist of Swiss and Scotch settlers, most of the former are old soldiers, as unfit for agricultural pursuits as the half-breeds themselves. The only good colonists are the Scotch, who have brought over with them, as usual, their steady habits, and their indefatigable perseverance. Although the soil about Pembina is very good, and will, when well cultivated, yield a plentiful return, yet, from the character of the population, as well as from the infant state of the colony [at Fort Douglas?], it does not at present yield sufficient produce to support the settlers, who therefore devote much of their time to hunting; this, which perhaps in the origin was the effect of an imperfect state of agriculture, soon acted as a cause; for experience shows that men addicted to hunting never can make good farmers. At the time when we arrived at the colony, most of the settlers had gone from home, taking with them their families, horses, &c. They were then chasing the buffalo in the prairies, and had been absent forty-five days without being heard from. The settlement was in the greatest need of provisions; fortunately for us, who were likewise destitute, they arrived the next day. Their return afforded us a spectacle that was really novel and interesting; their march was a triumphant one, and presented a much greater concourse of men, women and children than we had expected to meet in those distant prairies. The procession consisted of one hundred and fifteen carts, each loaded with about eight hundred pounds of the finest buffalo meat; there were three hundred person, including the women. The number of their horses, some of which were very good, was not under two hundred. Twenty hunters, mounted on their best steeds, rode in abreast; having heard of our arrival, they fired a salute as they passed our camp. These men receive here the name Gens libres or Freemen, to distinguish them from the servants of the Hudson’s Bay Company, who are called Engagés. Those that are partly of Indian extraction, are nick-named Bois Brulé, (Burnt Wood.) from their dark complexion.

Henry James Warre, lithograph, “Buffalo Hunting on the Western Prairies,” (London UK: 1848). Source: LAC Mikan no. 2827802.

A swift horse is held by them to be the most valuable possession; they are good judges of horses, particularly of racers, with which they may chase the buffalo. Their horses are procured from our southern prairies, or from the internal provinces of New Spain, whence they are stolen by the Indians, and traded or re-stolen throughout the whole distance, until they get into the possession of these men Their dress is singular, but not deficient in beauty; it is a mixture of the European and Indian habits. All of them have a blue capote with a hood, which they use only in bad weather; the capote is secured round their waist by a military sash; they wear a shirt of calico or painted muslin, mocassins [sic] and leather leggings fastened round the leg by garters ornamented with beads, &c. The Bois brulés often dispense with a hat; when they have one, it is generally variegated in the Indian manner, with feathers, gilt lace, and other tawdry ornaments.

Detail, Peter Rindisbacher, watercolour, “A halfcast (Métis) and his two wives,” (c. 1825-1826), Source: LAC Mikan no. 2835810.

The character of the Bois brulé countenance is peculiar. Their eyes are small, black, and piercing; their hair generally long, not unfrequently curled, and of the deepest black; their nose is short and turned up; their mouth wide; their teeth good; their complexion of a deep olive, which varies according to the quantity of Indian blood which they have in them. They are smart, active, excellent runners. One of them, we are told, often chased buffalo on foot; we did not, however, see him do it. This man had a handsome, well-proportioned figure, of which Mr. [Samuel] Seymour took a sketch. He was very strong, and was known to have three times discharged, from his bow, an arrow, which, after perforating one buffalo, had killed  second; an achievement which is sometimes performed by the Indians, though it is rare, as it requires great muscular strength. Their countenance is full of expression, which partakes of cunning and malice. When angry, it assumes all the force of the Indian features, and denotes perhaps more of the demoniac spirit than is generally met with, even in the countenance of the aborigine.

Frederic Remington, engraving,” Métis français,” (c. 1800-1880). Source: LAC Mikan no. 4323046.

The mixture of nation, which consist of English, Scotch, French, Italians, Germans, Swiss, united with Indians of different tribes, viz. Chippewas, Crees, Dacotas, &c. has been unfavourable to the state of their morals; for, as is generally the case, they have been more prone to imitate the vices than the virtues of each stock; we can therefore ascribe to this combination of heterogeneous ingredients, but a very low rank in the scale of civilization. They are but little superior to the Indians themselves. Their cabins are built, however, with a little more art; they cultivate small fields of wheat, maize, barley, potatoes, turnips, tobacco, &c. A few of the more respectable inhabitants keep cows and attend to agriculture, but we saw neither a plough nor a yoke of oxen in use, in the whole of the upper settlement [Pembina]. Considering the high latitude of Pembina, the above-mentioned plants thrive well. Maize yields tolerable crops; so does tobacco, which even yields seed. The wheat which is in greatest repute here is the bearded wheat. The price of agricultural produce is apparently very high. Wheat sells for two dollars per bushel; Indian corn for three dollars; barley, which is much used by the colonists in soup, yields three dollars; potatoes from fifty cents to one dollar; and the other vegetables in proportion. It may be well, however, to add that these are nominal prices, there is no specie currency, every thing is traded for in the way of exchange for some other commodity, at the rates affixed to them by the Hudson’s Bay Company, of which the following may give an idea. Gun powder at one dollar and a quarter per lb. Buck and small shot at seventy-five cents per lb. Buck and small shot at seventy-five cents per lb. Tobacco two dollars per lb. …


Millicent Mary Chaplin, watercolour, “Portrait d’un fermier canadien,” (c. 1838-1842). Source: LAC Mikan no. 2833294.

[At Pembina] … the distance to the boundary line was measured off, and an oak post fixed on it, bearing on the north side the letters G.B. and on the south side those [of] U.S. On the 8th of August [1823], at noon, the flag was hoisted on the staff … A national salute was fired at the time, and a proclamation made by Major Long, that ‘by virtue of the authority vested in him by the President of the United States, the country situated upon Red River, above that point, was declared to be comprehended within the territory of the United States.’ This declaration was made in the presence of all the inhabitants collected for that purpose. They appeared well satisfied on hearing that the whole of the settlement of Pembina, with the exception of a single log-house, standing near the left bank of the river, would be included in the territory of the United States. While fixing the posts, the colonists requested that they might be shown how the line would run; when this was done, the first observation they made was, that all the buffalo would be on our side of the line; this remark shows the great interest they take in this animal, to which all their thoughts recur. We might almost apply to them the observation made by Gomara of the natives of the province of Quivira, and which is strictly true of the Dacotas. ‘The people have no other riches, (than the buffalo); they are unto them meat, drink, apparel; their hides also yield them houses and ropes; their sinews and hair, thread their horns, mawes, and bladders, vessels; their dung, fire; the calves skins budgets wherewith they draw and keep water*.’”

[* … Vide De Laet, ut supra, L. 6, C. 17, and Puchas p. 778.]

Illustration, “Skinning the Buffalo,” in Henry Rowe Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States Collected and Prepared under the Bureau of Indian Affairs vol. 4 (Philadelphia PA: J.B. Lippencott and Co., 1860), 105.

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George Antoine Belcourt’s Accounts of an 1845 Hunt

Featured image: Alfred Jacob Miller, watercolour, “Approaching Buffalo,” (1867). Library and Archives Canada [LAC] Mikan no. 2833895.

In 1845 G.A. Belcourt accompanied the fall hunt for six weeks. Apparently several descriptions of his observations were subsequently published, including:

  • a letter, quoted in Association de la propagation de la foi (Diocèse de Québec), Rapport sur les Missions du Diocèse de Québec et autres Missions qui en ont ci-devant fait partie, no. 7 (Québec: des Ateliers de J.T. Brousseau, Juillet 1847);
  • a letter to Major S. Woods (25 November 1845), published as Pembina Settlement. Letter from the secretary of war transmitting the report of Major Woods relative to his expedition to the Pembina settlement, and the condition of affairs on the north-western frontier of the territory of Minnesota, March 9, 1850, Congressional Documents 31st Congress, 1st Session [3 December 1849–30 September 1850], House Doc. 51, 44–52;
  • an ‘amplified … description’ from a letter to Bishop Loras of Dubuque, 16 February 1850, printed in Annals of the Propagation of the Faith, vol. 12, no. 73 (July 1851);
  • “Sport of Buffalo-hunting on the Open Plains of Pembina. By Hon. H. H. Sibley, M.C.,” Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected  and prepared under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs per act of Congress of March 3rd 1847, part 4, ed. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854)—which seems to be a reprint of Major Wood’s version; and
  • a version based on a French-language original as quoted in G.A. Belcourt, trans. J.A. Burgesse, “Buffalo Hunt,” Beaver (December 1944), 13-17, the source described as a letter to “M.C” (25 November 1845)—which would seem to suggest that the letter to Major Woods was the original French-language account—but that was “published at Quebec in 1847 as part of a report on missions,” which perhaps should not be a reference to Woods’ letter.

The last two of the versions listed are transcribed below for comparison [note, however, that the accompanying illustrations are not strictly contemporary].

“Sport of Buffalo-hunting on the Open Plains of Pembina. By Hon. H. H. Sibley, M.C.,” Historical and Statistical Information, Respecting the History, Condition and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected  and prepared under the direction of the Bureau of Indian Affairs per act of Congress of March 3rd 1847, part 4, ed. Henry Rowe Schoolcraft (Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1854):

[p. 94:] “There is too much reason to fear that the buffalo, or American bison, which is the subject of this paper, will soon become extinct as a denizen of the wilds of the North American Continent. …”

[p. 101–110:] “In the northern part of Minnesota, on both sides of the line dividing the United States from the British possessions, there is to be found a large population, consisting mostly of mixed bloods. These men possess, in an eminent degree, the physical energy, and powers of endurance of the white man, combined with the activity, subtlety, and skill in hunting, of the Indian, They are fine horsemen, and remarkably dexterous in the chase of the buffalo. Half farmer and half hunters, they till the ground, and raise fine crops of wheat and other cereals, while semi-annually they repair to the buffalo region to procure meat, which they cure in diverse ways, and dispose of to our own citizens and to the Hudson [sic] Bay Company for the supply of their remote inland trading-posts. Being numerous and well supplied with horses, oxen, and carts, the number of buffalos annually slaughtered by them is astounding. I shall conclude this article with an interesting description of the peculiar habits and mode of hunting of these people, furnished by the Rev. Mr. Belcourt, a Catholic priest residing among them in January, 1851. From my own personal acquaintance with many of the half-breeds, as well as with Mr. Belcourt himself, who is justly esteemed as a gentleman of integrity and veracity, I can confidently endorse the general correctness of his statements, as contained in the following pages.

I can now state to you understandingly the mode of the buffalo hunt practiced by the people of our country, having accompanied them in one of their excursions. I should first remark, that the autumnal hunt engages the attention of comparatively few men, for the following reasons. A portion of the half-breeds, who have not the means of passing the winter in the settlements, spread over that part of the country where they can subsist themselves and families during the cold weather by the chase of the elk, moose, and the bear: others, hoping to reap more profit by trapping the fur-bearing animals, seek the haunts of the marten, the fisher, the otter, and the beaver, in the wooded region and along water-courses and lakes; so that ordinarily not more than one-third assemble for the fall hunt of the buffalo.

William George Richardson Hind, watercolour, “Red River Cart,” (June 1862). Library and Archives Canada [LAC] Mikan no. 2833669.

The returns of the previous summer expedition had shown but a ‘beggarly account of empty boxes.’ After a long march during the warm weather, the half-breeds had made their appearance with carts less than one-quarter laden, and even this scanty supply of meat was in bad order. This was as much owing to the want of union and method on the part of the hunters themselves, as to the scarcity of the buffalo. Now that it was understood that they were to be accompanied by a priest, a general feeling of confidence was restored, as it was expected that he would act as umpire, if difficulties should occur, and do all in his power to promote harmony in the camp. Preparations for the campaign were, accordingly, made at St. Boniface and the White Horse Plains, and they took up the line of march, one after the other, until the ninth of September, when I myself brought up the rear. The place of rendezvous was designated at a spot on the banks of the Pembina river, not at the site of the old establishment, but about a day’s journey above it, I arrived at the point indicated on the third day after my departure from the settlement.

From the summit of the hill, which reared its crest about two hundred feet above the surface of the river, I discovered the camp, which was composed of about sixty lodges. These were pitched in the open prairie, and near them grazed tranquilly several hundred head of horses and oxen. In the distance, the younger hunters, having followed the sinuosities of the stream, were returning laden with wild fowl; while in an opposite direction, children could be seen bending under the weight of fish, of which the river furnished a great abundance. Carts traversed the plain on all sides, with fire-wood, spare axles, lodge-poles, and materials for the construction of cart-bodies and lattice-work, whereupon to dry the meat. It became necessary to provide a full supply of all these articles, as we were about to launch forth into an immense prairie, without a single tree to serve as a landmark to the voyageurs.

On the fourteenth we raised the camp and ascended the opposite hill. From thence we viewed, like the ocean in its vastness, that succession of hill and valley, of constantly-occurring uniformity, which extended to the Missouri river; nay, I might say to the base of the Rocky Mountains. Here it was necessary to determine the precise direction to be taken. As the Red river hunters had not joined us, we judged it proper not longer to follow the mountain on that side, lest we should do them an injury by raising the buffalo [sic: italics in source] before them on the route we expected them to take. On the other hand, we were aware that a certain number of half-breeds had gone to establish their winter quarters near the end of the Turtle mountain, and on Moose river; consequently we could hope for no success if we followed their trail. It was decided at length that we should pursue a middle course; first south of east, until a certain distance had been accomplished, and then change to south-west, so as to visit Thicket lake, Hole Mound, Devil’s lake, the Little Fork of the Cheyenne, Basswood lake, and the Dog’s lodge. The decision having been publicly announced and the guides appointed, we proceeded on our way. The carts, to the number of two hundred and thirteen, were ranged in three lines, one line being drawn by oxen and the other two by horses. These formed a much longer train than one would imagine, if not aware that to each vehicle lodge-poles, fifteen or eighteen feet in length, were attached.

And now the horsemen disperse in every direction, to wend their way only at night to the point beforehand indicated as the camping-ground. Like veteran mariners, these children of the prairie march during the entire day over hill and dale, offering to the eye of a stranger no distinctive features whereby to shape his course, and yet make their way unerringly, even in the darkness of night, to the camp.

W.G.R. Hind, pencil sketch, “Camp,” (18 July 1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833693.

At an early hour we halted and arranged matters for passing the night, awaiting meanwhile the report of the scouts with much impatience. The first who appeared was my own hunter. He had seen no buffalo, but he brought back with him two cranes, one of which measured eight feet and three inches between the extremities of the wings. This bird, the flesh of which is not pleasant to the taste, abounds in that part of the country, its food being principally roots, which it digs up with its beak. When wounded it becomes a dangerous antagonist, for raising itself to its full height, it turns upon the hunter and strives to pluck out his eyes. It has happened that young savages have had their bowels pierced and lacerated by this furious bird.

W.G.R. Hind, “Buffalo Hunter,” (July 1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833701.

About sundown all the hunters had come in with the exception of two, and fresh signs of buffalo had been seen. The following day the number of look-outs was augmented. About ten in the morning, the two young men who had been so long absent, joined us laden with fresh meat, and when the scouts returned in the evening, that article was extremely abundant. But the flesh of the bulls is no delicacy, nor is it easy of digestion; however, I was served to the choicest part, viz., the tongue; ‘for,’ it was remarked to me, ‘you are not accustomed to eat of this meat, and if you partake of any other portion, you may be seized with the buffalo sickness,’—mal de boeuf. This ailment, so far as I could divine, is nothing more or less than indigestion. The flesh has the consistency of leather, and as the hunters, flushed with health, are blessed with a fierce appetite, they do not sufficiently masticate this tough food, and often suffer in consequence.

At length we had good reason to believe that on the morrow we should fall in with a herd of cows. I accordingly made preparations in the morning for joining the hunters, who were in high glee at the brilliant prospects, and made the prairie to resound with their boisterous mirth. We hardly rode along for half an hour, when we discovered a herd of bulls. They were distinguished as such from the fact that they do not huddle together in the herd as do the females. We approached them at a slow gait, and they fed tranquilly until we arrived within three or four hundred yards. We then reduced the pace of our horses to a walk, knowing that, by so doing, the buffalo would not take to flight until we were very near them. Still, not being over-anxious to receive a visit from us, they began to manifest signs of ill-humor. Some threw dust in the air with their fore-feet, others rolled upon the ground, and then, with the agility of a hare, sprang up in an instant. Others again, with more gravity of deportment, looked at us fixedly, uttering occasionally, a low bellow; the sudden jerk of the tail alone, giving assurance that our presence was no more acceptable to them than to their companions.

When the signal is given we spur our horses towards them, and before us fly with rapidity, the thick and heavy masses. Several are overthrown at the first discharge; others, feeling themselves mortally wounded, stop suddenly, and tear up the earth in their fury, or strike it, like rams, with their fore-feet. Under the shaggy tufts of hair, their eyes sparkle with rage, and warn the most intrepid of the hunters to keep at a respectful distance.

John Richard Coke Smyth, lithograph, “Buffalo hunting,” Sketches in the Canadas, dedicated to the Earl of Durham (1840), plate 14. LAC Mikan no. 2837872.

This chase, which lasted but a quarter of an hour, was scarcely brought to a close, when the cloud of dust was perceived rising from the top of a hill in the distance. I had no time to ask the cause of this, before each man sprang to his saddle, crying out, cow cows! (la vache! la vache!) Although a dozen huge bulls lay dead upon the ground, not even a tongue was taken.

In a very short time we reached the eminence, where I expected we would find ourselves in close proximity to the animals which had been announced with so much assurance, but, to my surprise, I could perceive none. At length, I was made to remark, several miles away, certain objects, which, as there was a mirage, appeared to me to be trees, but even at that distance the keen eyes of the hunters recognized them to be, not trees, nor even bulls, but cows.

The men here all assembled to the number of fifty-five. Even the horses seemed to partake of the joy and ardor of their masters. To moderate the fierceness of the steed was difficult, to restrain that of the hunter was much more so. But to ensure success, we must advance together, quietly and warily, until within two gun-shots of the herd. If, on the contrary, as is the case when the half-breeds have no acknowledged leader, those possessed of fleet horses advance at full speed, leaving to the others no chance to secure a portion of the prey, there arise discord, quarrels, hatred, and all their train of evils.

W.G.R. Hind, “Buffalo Hunting,” (1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833708.

The instinct of the buffalo causes them to huddle closely together when pursued. The males, if separated from the cows, then rejoin them; the latter, however, being the swiftest, always keeping in the front ranks. To reach them, therefore, it becomes necessary to pierce the dense the dense phalanx of bulls, which is a dangerous experiment. During the hunt of the previous summer, an Indian, thrown headlong from his horse, which had been overturned by a bull, was made the sport of the latter for several minutes, being tossed into the air repeatedly, and each time received, bleeding and lacerated, upon the sharp horns of the infuriated beast. To give an idea of the monstrous strength of these animals, it is sufficient to state, that one of them in traversing the line of carts, struck a vehicle to which a horse was attached, and which was laden at the time with more than a thousand pounds’ weight, and hurled it over and over three or four times.

Another great danger to which the hunter is exposed, is that of finding himself in the direction of the bulls, which are sped heedlessly on every side, and whistle in a frightful manner, while the whirlwinds of dust prevent any object being seen at a distance of ten yards. Lately, in a chase, one of the men received a bullet in his belly, but, luckily, the wound did not prove to be mortal. On another occasion, the ball traversed the coat, shirt, and flesh of a hunter, and was only arrested by the breast-bone. Providentially, no such accidents occurred to turn our excursion into one of mourning. It can hardly be supposed, that, in view of so many dangers, the horseman can divest himself entirely of a certain apprehension, sufficiently vivid, however, to impress itself upon his countenance.

The rapidity with which the half-breeds charge their guns is astonishing, it not being an uncommon occurrence for one of them to shoot down three buffaloes in the space of an acre (arpent). Their manner of loading is, not to use wadding after their first shot is discharged. They prime their pieces, then pour powder into the muzzle from the horn, the bullet being taken from the mouth and slipped down on top of the powder, the saliva causes it to adhere sufficiently long for their purpose. The horse, meanwhile, is abandoned to his own guidance, but so admirably are these animals trained, that the mere motion of the body of the master to one side or the other, is instantly understood and obeyed.

After the first day’s course, which lasted not more than half an hour, I counted one hundred and sixty-nine cows lying dead upon the plain. The next day one hundred and seventy-seven were killed. The third day, although many of the hunters chose to repose themselves, one hundred and fourteen were destroyed; and on the fourth one hundred and sixty-eight, making, altogether, six hundred and twenty-eight buffalo. It would be supposed that these would suffice for the loading of two hundred and thirteen carts; but such was not the case, many more being needed to complete it. It is true that much of the meat is squandered and lost on account of the careless manner of curing it.

W.G.R. Hind, sketch, “Cutting Up Buffalo,” (July 1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833709.

The hunt of the day being ended, the quarry is placed upon its knees, and the hind legs are stretched out to their full length, so that the animal is sustained principally upon its belly. The small hump is first taken out, This is a protuberance of flesh about the neck, weighing about three pounds, and is attached to the large hump. The skin is now divided along the back-bone, and is loosened, after which, the operation of slicing and curing is commenced, of which the following are the details, with the technical words used:—

  1. Les depouilles—are taken from each side of the animal, from shoulder to the haunches. They are separated from the flesh underneath by a cartilaginous membrane, or thin skin.
  2. Les filets—are the great muscles, covered with flesh, which connect the shoulder-blades and haunches.
  3. Les bricoles—two strips of fat, which run from the shoulder to below the neck.
  4. Les petits filets de cou—small muscles which spring from a point near the end of the gros filets.
  5. Le dessur de croupe—which begins above the flanks.
  6. Les deux epaules—the shouders.
  7. Les dessous d’epaule—strips of flesh between the sides of the breast-bone and shoulders.
  8. Lepis—the flat part surrounding and containing the udder.
  9. Le ventre—the belly.
  10. La panse—the tripe, esteemed by the half-breeds as a great delicacy.
  11. La grosse bosse—the large hump which has its greatest elevation between the shoulder-blades. It is a mass of flesh covering thin wide bones, which are inclined backwards, like the dorsal fin of a fish. The flesh has a delicious flavor.
  12. Le gras—the tallow inside the animal.
  13. Les plats cotes—the ribs.
  14. La croupe—the rump.
  15. Le brochet—the breast-bone.
  16. La langue—the tongue.

W.G.R. Hind, sketch, “Buffalo Carcass with Three Figures,” (19 July 1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833699.

What remains is left for the wolves. Cutting up is a labor which brings the sweat from the hunter, but our people display a surprising rapidity and adroitness in performing it. Sometimes, in ten hours’ time, as many buffalo have been killed and dissected by one man and his family. The profuse perspiration affects them very much, causing inordinate thirst, so that they take the precaution to supply themselves with a keg of water, which is transported on the cart that goes to the meat [sic: italics in source]. When this is neglected, the suffering is almost intolerable, and the means taken in some measure to assuage thirst, is to chew leaves, or even the cartilaginous portion of the nostril of the slain buffalo, If the hunter becomes hungry, he devours the kidneys, which are cooked after  fashion, by immersion in the gall-bladder, or eaten raw.

The meat, when taken to the camp, is cut by the women into long thin strips about a quarter of an inch thick, which are hung upon the lattice-work, prepared for that purpose, to dry. This lattice-work is formed of small pieces of wood placed horizontally, transversely, and equi-distant from each other, not unlike an immense gridiron, and is supported by wooden uprights (trepieds) [sic: not italicized in source]. In a few days the meat is thoroughly desiccated, when it is bent into proper lengths, and tied in bundles of sixty or seventy pounds weight. This is called dried meat (viande seche) [sic: not italicized in source]. Other portions which are destined to be made into pimikehigan, or pemican, are exposed to an ardent heat, and thus become brittle, and easily reducible to small particles by the use of a flail; the buffalo-hide answering the purpose of a threshing-floor. The fat, or tallow, being cut up and melted in large kettles of sheet-iron, is poured upon this pounded meat, and the whole mass is worked together with shovels, until it is well amalgamated, when it is pressed, while still warm, into bags made of buffalo-skin, which are strongly sewed up, and the mixture gradually cools and becomes almost as hard as a rock. If the fat used in this process is that taken from the parts containing the udder, the meat is called fine pemican. In some cases, dried fruits, such as the prairie-pear and cherry, are intermixed, which forms what is called seed pemican. The lovers of good eating judge the first described to be very palatable; the second, better; the third excellent. A taurean or pemican weighs from one hundred to one hundred and ten pounds. Some idea may be formed of the immense destruction of buffalo by these people, when it is stated that a whole cow yields one half a bag of pemican, and three-fourths of a bundle of dried meat; so that the most economical calculate that from eight to ten cows are required for the load of a single vehicle.

William Armstrong, watercolour, “Buffalo Meat Drying, White Horse Plains, Red River,” interpreting a scene he apparently did not witness first hand (1899). LAC Mikan no. 283395.

To make the hide into parchment (so called), it is stretched on a frame, and then scraped on the inside with a sharpened bone, and on the outside with a small but sharp-curved iron, proper to remove the hair. This is considered, likewise, the appropriate labor of the women. The men break the bones; which are boiled in water to extract the marrow, to be used for frying, and other culinary purposes. The oil is then poured into the bladder of the animal, which contains, when filled, about twelve pounds; being the yield of the marrow-bones of two buffaloes.

Henry Worrall, wood engraving, “Midnight Serenade on the Plains,” in Buffalo Land An Authentic Account of the Discoveries, Adventures, and Mishaps of a Scientific and Sporting Party in the Wild West…, by W.E. Webb (Boston: J.F. Riday and Co., 1873), 227.

In addition to the buffalo, the quadrupeds found in the prairie are the elk, the antelope, the deer, the small prairie dog, similar to the fox, the badger, the hare (which differs from that found in the woods, being larger and swifter than the latter), the muskrat (remarkable for its fecundity), the wolf (in large numbers, whose interminable howlings during the hours of darkness, prevent those unaccustomed to the wild life of the plains from sleeping), and lastly, the grizzly bear, of which one was seen at Bass-Wood Lake, but escaped from its pursuers.

While we coasted along the shore of Devil’s Lake, a sheet of water about ten miles long, and two in width, some of the horsemen went off in pursuit of a small herd of cows. One of them fell from his saddle, and was unable to overtake his horse; which continued the chase as if he, of himself, could accomplish great things—so much do these animals become imbued with a passion for this sport!

On another occasion, a half-breed left his favorite steed at the camp, to enable him to recruit his strength; enjoining his wife the necessity of properly securing the animal, which was not done, not relishing the idea of being left behind, he started after us, and soon was alongside; and thus he continued to keep pace with the hunters in their pursuit of the buffalo, seeming to await with impatience the fall of some of them to the earth. The chase ended, he came neighing to his master, whom he soon singled out, although the men were dispersed here and there for a distance of miles. When the camp is changed, the lodges are placed in positions so different that the hunter, on his return, is not infrequently obliged to search a considerable time before he finds his own domicile. Not so with his horse; which, although he may have been left at a considerable distance, comes at a given hour, and without manifesting any signs of uncertainty, marches straight to the proper habitation, and striking the skin door with his fore-foot, demands the measure of barley as the usual and well-earned price of his day’s labor.

John James Audubon, print, “American Bison or Buffalo,” (Philadelphia: J.T. Bowen, 1845), no. 12, plate 57. LAC, W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana, Mikan no. 2879125.

On the 25th we encamped on the Cheyenne, the longest tributary of the Red River of the North. We had here in full view immense herds of buffalo, I myself having counted two hundred and twenty in the area of a single square acre of ground. Both sides of the river were covered with them, as far as the eye could reach. Judge, then, if possible, of the quantity of game upon these prairies. How deplorable that the Hand which distributes daily food from this source to so many people, should not even be known or recognized by the major part of them! For it should be borne in mind that the Christian half-breeds are not to be compared in number with the many nations of savages whose nourishment is constantly and exclusively drawn from the products of the chase.

As I almost invariably accompanied the horsemen in their excursions from the camp, I was an eye-witness to a most perilous scene in which they were the actors. They were in close pursuit of a large herd of cows, and at the height of speed, when they arrived pêle mêle with the buffalo on the summit of a precipice lined with rocks above and below, man, horse, and chase, falling and rolling over each other in such confusion, that it became difficult to conceive how any escaped instant death, either from the effects of the fall itself, or by being crushed by the ponderous masses. Strange as it may appear, only one man remained senseless upon the ground, and he soon recovered; a couple of horses arose limping, and a few cows had one or more of their legs broken. The hunters who had been dismounted in this frightful melee, arose with yells and shouts, to reassure their companions, regained their saddles, and resumed the pursuit, making their whips to crack, so as to recover their lost ground; for it may well be believed that the herd had not meanwhile awaited their convenience, So soon as I was satisfied that no serious accident had occurred, I spurred forward my steed, and discharged my gun at a cow, which immediately subsided. I arrested my career, although strongly tempted to proceed, for I felt that I would have no excuse in further exposing myself to peril and to blame.

George Seton, watercolour, “Closing with a Straggler 5 Augt ’58,” Seton Sketchbook (16 April 1862), 25. LAC Mikan no. 2837786.

One of the half-breeds, in returning from the chase, followed the windings of the stream, and observed signs of beaver along its banks. The day following he caught five of these amphibia in his steel traps. I was led by curiosity to go and examine the dam which they had constructed, and most admirable was the workmanship. Although no wood was to be found save willows of the size of one’s finger, yet the dam was so solidly constructed of this apparently frail material, that it served as a bridge for the buffalo. I myself crossed the stream upon it with my horse.

The supply of firewood which had been brought from Pembina being entirely consumed, our people had to use the dung of buffalo for fuel. This, when dry, produces an ardent but transient flame, sufficient for cooking our daily food; but it evolves as smoke which, to the nasal organs of a stranger, is far from being agreeable. The want of wood interfered much with the curing of the meat, the sun not having sufficient power to dry it. It became necessary, therefore, to change our locality, and shape our course to the islands of timber in the vicinity of Basswood lake. This spot is most picturesque, and the views from it varied and beautiful. The lake, which is in a basin surrounded with hills, is extremely salt, but the springs which flow into it afford an abundance of pure fresh water. The slopes of the surrounding eminences are well furnished with oak, ash, and bass-wood. From the top of the hills we discover at no great distance the Dog’s Lodge, a mound which serves as a look-out place for the Sioux Indians when engaged in war. In another direction are the heights called Les Grands Coteaux, which extend to and beyond the Missouri, on a parallel line with the Stony Mountains.

Arrived at this point on the second of October, we remained until the sixteenth, being during that time constantly in the midst of the buffalo. On the tenth we had a heavy fall of snow, when the mercury fell to 5º [Réaumur] below zero, where it continued for two days, and the lake was frozen over. Six days after, the weather had so much moderated that no snow was left upon the ground. The cold had by no means retarded our labors. On the contrary, each one, fearing a premature winter, worked day and night, the more indolent usually being now the most untiring, as they had good reason to apprehend that they would be left behind by their more industrious companions.

“Figs. 1-5 A series of the horns of the male Bison americanus, showing variation in size and form with age,” Illustrated Catalogue of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard College, vol. 4, Memoirs of the Museum ser. (Cambridge: University Press, Welch, Bigelow and Co., 1874-1876), plate 8, “Fig. 1, from a specimen about six months old”; Fig. 2, about 1 year old; Fig. 3, 3-4 months; Fig. 4 10-12 years; Fig, 5, 20-25; Figs. 6-7, “very old” males; Fig. 8, 6 year old female B. americanus; Fig 9, 6 year old female B. bonasus; Figs. 10-11, “old females” B. americanus; Fig. 12 B. antiquus (male?), Alaska.

I cannot close my remarks relative to the buffalo without giving you a just idea of their size and conformation. As is the case with others of the animal creation, the male is considerably larger than the female. The horns of the bull scarcely emerge from the dense mass of hair which covers a part of the head and neck, and gives them a startling appearance; while the cow, not being provided with such a profusion of hair, her jutting and more curved horns make her distinguishable from her mate at quite a distance. I measured a bull of middle size, and found that he was eight feet nine inches in girth, nine feet two inches long, twenty inches from the nose to the top of the head, length of tail one foot three inches, and twenty inches between the eyes. The longest rib in the rump, with an inclination of twenty degrees on the back-bone, was twenty inches long.

Although the summer hunt is the most favorable for catching and domesticating the calves, I was smitten with the desire to secure one. At my request, a hunter pursued and lassoed a youngster, but it died five or six days after of fatigue, as was asserted; but in my opinion its death was caused by ennui, as it refused nourishment and appeared to pine away. In the spring the calves are easily weaned, and when trained to labor became quite useful. One farmer, who had broken a bull to the plough, performed the whole work of the field with his aid alone.

Finally, on the sixteenth of October we resumed our march homewards, having upon our carts the proceeds of 1776 cows, which formed 228 pemican bags, 1213 bales of dried meat, 166 boskoyas or sacks of tallow, each weighing 200 pounds, and 556 bladders of marrow of twelve pounds each. The value of these articles was about £1700, from which deducting £200 for the actual expenses of the trip and the wages of certain hired men, there remained £1500 to compensate fifty-five hunters and their families for two months labor, computing from the day of our departure to that of our return.”

“Moving Camp” in John Charles Frémont, Memoirs of My Life: Including in the Narrative Fiver Journeys of Western Exploration, during the years 1842, 1843–4, 1845–6–7, 1848–9, 1853–4 (1886), 601.

 G.A. Belcourt, trans. J.A. Burgesse, “Buffalo Hunt,” Beaver (December 1944), 13-17:

“St. Paul, November 25th, 1845

My dear friend, I can now speak with some knowledge of the manner in which the buffalo is hunted in this country, having had the opportunity of taking part in one of these expeditions. However before beginning, I must explain that the fall hunt attracts the fewest hunters, and for the following reasons. Some of the Halfbreeds cannot afford to winter in the settlement so that, during the cold season, they go off into the interior where they live on deer, moose, and bear. Others keep to the rivers and lakes in order to hunt fur bearers as well as buffalo. The result is that but a third of our men are available for the [organized] hunt.

Last summer’s hunt was pitiful, for after having suffered the rigours of a long march under a burning sun, all the men returned with but a quarter of their accustomed loads. This was due more to a lack of unity among them than to the scarcity of game. Also, many of them had quite lost all ambition. However, their spirits revived as soon as word got around that a priest was to accompany them [on the next excursion]. At St. Boniface and White Horse Plains preparations were pushed to completion with renewed vigour and, one after the other, the hunters set out until, finally on November 9th, I departed in my turn. The rallying point was Pembina—not the old post, but another about a day’s march further on. Here I arrived on the third day after leaving. From the summit of a hill, 200 feet above the river, I looked down upon our camp of about 60 lodges. There it lay, in the very centre of the prairies across which wound our waggon train of some 300 horses and over a hundred oxen. Beyond were the younger hunters, returning along the river bank to camp, loaded with game. Closer in, a group of children could be seen coming home from their fishing. Carts wove a criss-cross pattern throughout the camp as they transported, thither and yon, such things as fire-wood, spare axels, lodge poles, drying frames and hide-stretchers. All these articles were important parts of our equipment, for we were leaving behind us the woodlands and heading into the boundless prairie.

On the 14th we struck camp and scaled the heights which lay before us, under a hot sun. From the top, we had a fine view of these endless prairies as they rolled on, wave upon wave, like a mighty ocean, as far as the Missouri; or even, I dare say, to the Rocky Mountains.

The time had now come when we must make up our minds as to what direction we should next take. Seeing that the hunters from Red River had not joined us, we felt that we ought not to skirt the mountains in that direction lest we cause them trouble by beating up the buffalo in front of them. On the other hand, it was known that a number of Halfbreeds were wintering in the Turtle and Souris Rivers country and, consequently, we could not hope for any great hunting in that neighbourhood. We decided, therefore, to take a middle course and work down to the SSE, changing later to SSW, This route would bring us via Lax des Branches Buttes des Trous, Devil’s Lake, the Little Forks of the Sheyenne, Lac du Bois Blanc and Maison du Chien. Public notice was given of our intention, the guides were appointed, and off we went set.

Our 213 carts, some of which were hauled by horses and others by oxen, were formed into three columns, and each of these columns was much longer than would be supposed by one who did not know that each one of them had a number of fifteen or eighteen foot poles tied on top of it.

In the meantime, the mounted members of our band had scattered off into the interior and were lost to view until evening when they would rejoin us at a previously agreed upon camping place. As does an experienced navigator upon the ocean, these children of the prairies can travel all day long through hills and vales which an unaccustomed eye cannot distinguish one from the other, and yet arrive in the evening, often enough after darkness has fallen, at the appointed rendez-vous.

We camped early and awaited the reports of the scouts in eager anticipation. The first to appear was my own huntsman. He had seen no buffalo but, in revenge, he had shot down a coupe of cranes, one of which measured eight feet three inches between the wing tips. These birds feed on roots which they dig up with their beaks. When they are wounded they are redoubtable adversaries. Raising their heads to about the height of a man, they chase after the hunter and attempt to gouge out his eyes. Indian children have been known to have been disembowelled [sic] by these ferocious birds.

When night fell all save two of the scouts had returned and had reported fresh tracks. Next day these good reports were more numerous and, about ten o’clock, the two young men who had spent the night on the prairies arrived with a load of fresh meat. Towards evening this article was quite plentiful. But the meat of the bull buffalo is not easy to digest, The tongue, which is the best morsel, was served to me for, as they told me, ‘you are not accustomed to this meat and would catch mal de boeuf if you ate any other part.’ As can be imagined, mal de boeuf is nothing but indigestion. This meat seems to have the consistency of boot-leather and the hunters, glowing as they are with health, do not give themselves the trouble of masticating it. Thus they are often its dupes. However, we expected to catch up with the cows next day.

I joined the hunters who were giving vent to their exuberance in a very noisy manner, and we had not ridden very far before we caught sight of a herd of bulls. They can be recognized, quite easily, from a distance because of their habit of keeping further apart, one from another, than do cows. We approached at a brisk trot to within seven or eight arpents while they continue to graze peaceably. Then we pulled up our horses to a walking pace, for they do not stampede until the very last minute when approached quietly.

Nevertheless, apparently not very pleased to see us, they showed some signs of ill humour. Some stamped their hooves, tossing up clouds of dust. Others rolled on the ground like horses, jumping to their feet again with all the agility of a hare. A few, apparently more conscious of their dignity, watched us fixedly and let escape, from time to time, sharp, hollow bellows. The sharp, jerky twitching of their tails left no doubts that they found our presence just as disagreeable as did their fellows.

The signal is given! We whip up our charges and the dense, heavy mass before us breaks and flees with surprising speed and lightness. Several buffalo are bowled over by the first shots. Others, mortally wounded and furious, stand at bay, tearing up the ground with their horns or stamping their hooves like rams. From beneath their tight, tangled poll locks their eyes are seen to sparkle with rage, bidding the most intrepid of hunters to keep his distance.

This chase, which lasted a scant half hour, was scarcely over when we perceived a cloud of dust rising from beyond a small hill, a few miles away, I had hardly time to demand what this could mean before each man leaped into his saddle and galloped off, crying, ‘The cows! The cows!’ They did not even wait to cut out the tongues of the dozen or so big bulls which lay dead upon the prairie. Soon all the horsemen had gained the heights from which had come the signal.

I had hoped that I would be close to this scene, which had been announced with so much assurance, when I reached the spot. What was not my surprise when, no matter what direction I turned my gaze, nothing could be seen! Presently, a number of dots, which appeared to be trees, were pointed out to me. Our hunters had recognized them to be not trees, nor bulls, but cows.

The hunters now gathered at this point numbered fifty-five and their horses seemed to share the joy and ardour of their riders. It was difficult to curb the steed, but more so to curb the master. The secret of a successful buffalo hunt is to approach quietly to within two gunshots’ distance of the prey. If, as happens often enough when there is no one around to take charge, the better horses are given free rein, the weaker are unable to overtake the quarry. Discord, quarrels, bad feeling and all their consequences are the result.

Instinct causes the buffalo to mass together when attacked. The bulls, which are usually to be found at some little distance from the cows, draw together first and move off before the pursuit. As they approach, the cows these, in their turn, mass together and flee before the males, but at a more rapid pace. Thus, in order to overtake the cows, one must thrust through a solid phalange of bulls—a most dangerous undertaking. Let me illustrate: Last year one of the Indians, who had been knocked over by a buffalo, was tossed and gored for over a quarter of an hour by the infuriated animal. Without slackening its mad career, the brute tossed and re-tossed the unlucky hunter fifteen or twenty feet into the air, catching him each time on its horns. Some idea of the strength of the animals may be obtained from the fact that one of them, when dashing through a line of carts, caught one with its horns and sent it rolling over for two or three turns. These carts, hauled by a horse, usually carry a load of more than a thousand pounds

Another equally serious danger to be reckoned with is that occasioned by stray bullets. From every direction they whistle through the clouds of dust in a most disconcerting manner. Recently, a fellow had his stomach pierced by a stray shot in the midst of a chase. By good fortune the wound was not fatal. On another occasion a ball struck a hunter and traversed his coat, shirt and skin, halting only when it brought up against his breast bone. We were lucky in that no serious accidents saddened our expedition. It is not surprising, therefore, that a hunter cannot help some apprehension from reflecting itself in his expression at such times.

The speed at which the guns are discharged is truly astonishing, It is not at all rare to see three buffalo knocked over by a single hunter within the space of one arpent. Some of them manage to discharge their pieces as many as five times during the course of a chase. Here is how they load: The first shot, only, is wadded down. The other balls are carried in the mouth so that they can prime their guns, pour in a charge of powder, and then spit the shot into the barrel. Saliva causes it to adhere to the powder at the bottom. In the meantime, the steed is abandoned to its own devices, but so well is it trained that the rider has but to lean to one side of the saddle or the other to make it understand his wishes which are obeyed immediately.

When the first chase was all over, and it lasted about half an hour, I counted 169 cows killed. We camped close by. Next day, 177 more were killed. On the third day a number of our riders rested up, but those who did go out brought back 114 cows to camp. On the fourth day a further 168 were brought down, making a total of 628. It might be thought that, by this time, we must have obtained enough with which to load our 213 carts. However, we required all of them, for much meat is lost by the manner in which the carcasses are dressed.

At the close of a chase, the hunter props up the dead buffalo on its knees. Then he spreads out the hind legs so that the animal is supported on its belly. To begin with, the petite bosse is taken off. This is a small hump, weighing about three pounds, which is found above the neck where it is attached to the main hump. Next, the hide is slit down the back and removed completely. Butchering follows.

Alfred Jacob Miller, watercolour, “Camp Providers,” showing hunter beginning to skin buffalo (1867). LAC/ Mrs. J.B. Jardine, Mikan no. 2833882.

The details of the latter operation are as follows:

  1. Dépouilles, two layers of flesh along the ribs, extending from shoulder to rump. They are separated by a thin skin or cartilage from another layer of meat which lies below them.
  2. Filets, sinewy muscles which connect the shoulder blades to the haunches.
  3. Bricoles, two bands of fat which descend from over the shoulders to the under part of the neck.
  4. Petites filets de cou, small sinewy muscles found near the extremities of the filets.
  5. Dessus de crous, parts immediately above the flanks.
  6. Epaules, the shoulders.
  7. Dessous d’épaules, the layers of flesh lying between ribs and shoulders.
  8. Pis, fatty layer extending under the belly and up the flanks. The udder is included in it.
  9. Ventre, muscular band of flesh which supports the intestines and extends under the belly from ribs on one side to ribs on opposite side.
  10. Panse, the stomach, which is considered by the half-breeds to be something of a delicacy.
  11. Grosse bosse, the hump, which is highest immediately between the shoulder blades. It is composed of a number of broad, thin bones, inclined to the rear and very similar in conformation to the spines on a fish bone. This morsel has a delicious taste.
  12. Gras or Suif, the suet from the interior of the carcass.
  13. Plats-côtes, or cutlets.
  14. Croupe, the rump.
  15. Brochet, meat which covers the stomach.
  16. Langue, the tongue.

All else is left to the wolves.

To dress and butcher one of these animals is quite an arduous task, but our folk go to it with a will and skill truly astonishing. Some of them have been known to kill and dress ten buffalo, without any assistance, in less than ten hours. Since the heat tries them sorely, they are careful to bring a small keg of water along with the ‘meat carts,’ as we call those wagons which come out to the hunting grounds in order to transport the meat back to camp. Did they not take this precaution they would suffer horribly from thirst. In order to allay this torment, to some extent, they are accustomed to chew the raw cartilages found in the nostrils of the buffalo. When hungry they eat the kidneys, after first having pickled them in the animal’s gall. I am told some of them do not even take this trouble and swallow the kidneys raw.

The meat is cut up by the women, who work it between their palms into long strips about a quarter inch think, which they hang upon a sort of frame as if they were so many pieces of laundry. The frames consist of a number of horizontal rows of wooden slats supported on tripods. After two or three days upon the frames, the meat is quite dried. It is then rolled up and the choicer pieces are packed into bundles weighing sixty or seventy pounds each. The rest, after first being dried to a crisp over a hot fire, is laid out upon a hide and pounded into a powder. Melted fat is poured on the meat and the whole worked up with shovels into a uniform mass. Afterwards this mixture is packed into raw-hide sacks, from which no one has even troubled to remove the hair. These sacks are known as taureaux (bulls) or pemmicans. When the fat used is taken from the udder, they are called taureaux fins (fine bulls). Sometimes dried fruits, such as pears and cherries, are included in the mixture, and sacks so treated are called taureaux à grains (berry bulls). According to the local gastronomes, the first kind is good, the second better, and the third the very best. In order to illustrate by how much this process reduces the weight of the meat, I would mention that a cow buffalo furnishes only sufficient pemmican for half a taureaux and three-quarters of a bundle of jerked meat. The most experienced hunters reckon that eight or ten cows are required to make up a cart load.

Parchment is obtained from the hides by drying them on stretchers and scraping the inner sides with a sharpened bone. the hair is removed with a small sharp tool especially intended for this purpose. This, also, is the work of the women. The men crack and boil the bones so as to extract the marrow, which is in much demand for frying. It is stored in the animals’ bladders, and the marrow from two cows is needed to fill a bladder, weighing about twelve pounds.

W.G.R. Hind, pencil and watercolour, “Camp at Midday,” (June 1862). LAC Mikan no. 2833689.

On the 25th we encamped at the Sheyenne River, the longest branch of the Red, and here we encountered an immense herd of cow buffalo. In the space of about a square arpent (seven and a half acres) I counted 220 animals and the country all around, on both sides of the river, was similarly covered as far as the eye could see. One can judge from this, if indeed such a thing is at all possible, what is the wealth of these prairies. Is it not deplorable that He who furnishes their daily bread to so many tribes should not yet be recognized by them? The Christian Halfbreeds are few, as compared to the many other bands who depend on hunting for their subsistence.

As I accompanied the hunters, almost always, when they left camp to hunt, I witnessed a rather perilous situation in which some of them found themselves during the course of the first chase in this neighbourhood. Having dashed off in pursuit of a numerous herd of cows, they were in full career, in the very midst of the herd, when they arrived suddenly at the brink of a steep, rock-strewn cliff. Over they went, pell-mell—hunters, horses and buffalo—in such confusion that it is difficult to explain why some were not killed, crushed against the rocks or tramped beneath the hooves of the following horde. Only one man was knocked unconscious, and he soon recovered. A couple of horses were lamed and a few buffalo had their legs broken. The hunters who had been un-horsed jumped quickly back into their saddles, with reassuring cries, and took up the chase once more, cracking their whips with a will in an endeavour to make up for lost time. The buffalo, of course, had not waited for them. After making quite certain that no-one had been hurt badly, I continued after the hunt. I overtook the others on a level stretch of prairie where I managed to knock over a cow. Though I was tempted to continue, I contented myself with this, for I saw no point in exposing myself to further danger, or reproach.

We arrived at this camp on October 2nd and remained until the 16th. All this time the buffalo were in abundance around us. A heavy snowfall occurred on the 10th and the mercury fell to five degrees below zero (freezing) on the Réaumur scale. In consequence the lake froze solidly during the two days following. However the weather became more temperate after six days and the snow disappeared. This cold spell did not interrupt our work. On the contrary the men worked night and day, fearing they might be caught by an early winter. The laziest among them did not spare themselves lest their more diligent companions finish their loading and depart without them.

I did not leave these herds without obtaining some knowledge of the size and conformation of the animals. As in other species, the male buffalo is bigger than the female. Its horns can scarcely be seen, so hidden are they beneath the mass of hair which covers the head and part of the neck, giving the beast a most strange appearance. The cow, on the other hand, is not provided with this mane and her horns can be seen without difficulty from a distance. I measured a medium sized bull and found him to have a girth of eight feet nine inches, a length of nine feet two inches, twenty inches from muzzle to top of forehead, tail one foot three inches, and fourteen inches between the eyes. The longest bone in the hump measured twenty inches and was inclined to the rear, making an angle of twenty degrees with the back-bone.

Although calves can be captured and tamed more easily during the summer season, I wished to see what could be done during this excursion. One of the hunters ran down and captured a calf with a lassoe, but it died after five or six days. They told me that this was due to its having run too hard; but I really think that it fretted to death, for it refused to eat anything at all. In the spring the calves are tamed quite easily and are very useful when domesticated. A farmer who had broken one to the plough had no difficulty at all in doing all his ploughing with this one animal alone.

At length on October 16th, we departed, our 55 hunters having killed, and loaded on the carts, some 1776 cow buffalo. The whole, calculated at the most moderate market prices, was worth a little more than seventeen hundred pounds sterling. The expenses of the expedition and the wages of the hired men not exceeding two hundred pounds, there remained fifteen hundred pounds earned by 55 hunters in the space of less than two months, from the day of departure to date of return.

On the return journey we had to head north and a ten days’ march lay ahead of us. During all this time we could not make any fire though the thermometer registered three or four degrees below zero Réaumur, for we were short of fire-wood. The size of our loads had prevented us from bringing along any fuel.

On the 22nd, accompanied by a Halfbreed who, like myself, had two good spare horses, I pushed ahead of the party. Being at lat. 48° N, long. 99° 3ˈ W, we had to head NNE. At two in the afternoon we encountered a party of English Halfbreeds who were going out to seek fresh meat in the Lake des Roches region. From time to time, throughout the day, we saw big herds of cows and bulls. That evening we encamped, without either fire or water, in a frigid temperature. We dared not eat anything lest, in so doing, we aggravate our thirst. In short, our situation was such that we were not tempted to linger under our blankets any longer than absolutely necessary. Next morning the sunrise discovered us at Pembina River, five or six leagues from where we had slept. On the 23rd, we made camp at Rivière aux Islets de Bois and at eleven o’clock on the morning of the 24th I arrived at St. Paul, which is situated at lat. 50° N, long. 96° 40ˈ W of Greenwich.

I am, etc.

G. A. Belcourt, Missionary Priest.”

~       ~


1846 Buffalo-hunt Observer’s Description

Featured image: Paul Kane, watercolour field sketch, ”Métis chasing buffalos” (1846).

Excerpt from Paul Kane, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America from Canada to Vancouver Island and Oregon through the Hudson’s Bay Company’s Territory and Back Again (London: Longman, Brown, Green, Longmans and Roberts, 1859; revised and reprinted, Tokyo: Charles E. Tuttle Company, 1968), 51–94.

“The half-breeds are a very hardy race of men, capable of enduring the greatest hardships and fatigues … Their buffalo hunts are conducted by the whole tribe, and take place twice a year, about the middle of June and October, at which periods notice is sent round to all the families to meet on a certain day on the White Horse Plain, about twenty miles from Fort Garry. Here the tribe is divided into three bands, each taking a separate route for the purpose of falling in with the herds of buffaloes. These bands are each accompanied by about 500 carts, drawn by an ox or a horse. Their cart is a curious-looking vehicle, made by themselves with their own axes, and fastened together with wooden pins and leather strings, nails not being procurable. The tire of the wheel is made of buffalo hide, and put on wet; when it becomes dry, it shrinks, and is so tight, that it never falls off, and lasts as long as the cart holds together.

I arrived at Fort Garry about three days after the half-breeds had departed; but as I was very anxious to witness buffalo hunting, I procured a guide, a cart for my tent, &c., and a saddle horse for myself, and started after one of the bands. We travelled that day about thirty miles, and encamped in the evening on a beautiful plain covered with innumerable small roses. The next day was anything but pleasant, as our route lay through a marshy tract of country, in which we were obliged to strain through a piece of cloth all the water we drank, on account of the numerous insects, some of which were accounted highly dangerous, and are said to have the power of eating through the coats of the stomach, and causing death even to horses.

The next day I arrived at the Pambinaw River, and found the band cutting poles, which they are obliged to carry with them to dry the meat on, as, after leaving this, no more timbered land is met with until the three bands meet together again at the Turtle Mountain, where the meat they have taken and dried on the route is made into pim-mi-kon. This process is as follows:—The thin slices of dried meat are pounded between two stones until the fibres separate; about 50lbs. of this are put into a bag of buffalo skin, with about 40lbs. of melted fat, and mixed together while hot, and sewed up, forming a hard and compact mass; hence its name in the Cree language, pimmi signifying meat, and kon, fat. Each cart brings home ten of these bags, and all that the half-breeds do not require for themselves is eagerly bought by the Company, for the purpose of sending to the more distant posts, where food is source. One pound of this is considered equal to four pounds of ordinary meat, and the pimmi-kon keeps for years perfectly good exposed to any weather.

I was received by the band with the greatest cordiality. They numbered about two hundred hunters, besides women and children. They live, during these hunting excursions, in lodges formed of dressed buffalo skins. They are always accompanied by an immense number of dogs, which follow them from the settlements for the purpose of feeding on the offal and remains of the slain buffaloes. These dogs are very like wolves, both in appearance and disposition, and, no doubt, a cross breed between the wolf and dog. A great may of them acknowledge no particular master, and are sometimes dangerous in times of scarcity. I have myself known them to attack the horses and eat them.

Lithograph, from Kane’s painting, “Half Breeds Travelling,” depicting Métis heading through the Pembina River region to Dakota for the summer hunt, 1846.

Our camp broke up on the following morning, and proceeded on their route to the open plains. The carts containing the women and children, and each decorated with some flag, or other conspicuous emblem, on a pole, so that the hunters might recognize their own from a distance, wound off in one continuous line, extending for miles, accompanied by the hunters on horseback. During the forenoon, while the line of mounted hunters and carts were winding round the margin of a small lake, I took the opportunity of making a sketch of the singular cavalcade.

The following day we passed the Dry Dance Mountain, where the Indians, before going on a war party, have a custom of dancing and fasting for three days and nights. …

After leaving this mountain, we proceeded on out route without meeting any buffalo, although we saw plenty of indications of their having been in the neighbourhood a short time previously. On the evening of the second day we were visited by twelve Sioux chiefs, with whom the half-breeds had been at war for several years. They came for the purpose of negotiating a permanent peace, but, whilst smoking the pipe of peace in the council lodge, the dead body of a half-breed, who had gone to a short distance from the camp, was brought in newly scalped, and his death was at once attributed to the Sioux. The half-breeds, not being at war with any other nation, a general feeling of rage at once sprang up in the young men, and they would have taken instant vengeance, for the supposed act of treachery, upon the twelve chiefs in their power, but for the interference of the old and more temperate of the body, who, deprecating so flagrant a breach of the laws of hospitality, escorted them out of danger, but, at the same time, told them that no peace could be concluded until satisfaction was had for the murder of their friend.

Exposed, as the half-breeds are, to all the vicissitudes of wild Indian life, their camps, while on the move, are always preceded by scouts, for the purpose of reconnoitering either for enemies or buffaloes. If they see the latter, they give signal of such being the case, by throwing up handfuls of dust; and, if the former, by running their horses to and fro.

Three days after the departure of the Sioux chiefs, our scouts were observed by their companions to make the signal of enemies in sight. Immediately a hundred of the best mounted hastened to the spot, and, concealing themselves behind the shelter of the bank of a small stream, sent out two as decoys, who exposed themselves to the view of the Sioux. The latter, supposing them to be alone, rushed upon them, whereupon the concealed half-breeds sprang up, and poured in a volley amongst them, which brought down eight. The others escaped, although several must have been wounded, as much blood was afterwards discovered on their track. …

The Saulteaux, although numerous, are not a warlike tribe, and the Sioux, who are noted for their daring and courage, have long waged a savage war on them, in consequence of which the Saulteaux do not venture to hunt in the plains except in company with the half-breeds. …

The following afternoon, we arrived at the margin of a small lake, where we encamped rather earlier than usual, for the sake of the water. Next day I was gratified with the sight of a band of about forty buffalo cows in the distance, and our hunters in full chase; they were the first I had seen, but were too far off for me to join in the sport. They succeeded in killing twenty-five, which were distributed through the camp, and proved most welcome to all of us, as our provisions were getting rather short, and I was abundantly tired of pimmi-kon and dried meat. The fires being lighted with the wood we had brought with us in the carts, the whole party commenced feasting with the voracity which appeared perfectly astonishing to me, until I tried myself, and found by experience how much hunting on the plains stimulate the appetite.

The upper part of the hunch of the buffalo, weighing four or five pounds, is called by the Indians the little hunch. This is of a harder and more compact nature than the rest, though very tender, and is usually put aside for keeping. The lower and larger part is streaked with fat and is very juicy and delicious. These, with the tongues, are considered the delicacies of the buffalo. After the party had gorged themselves with as much as they could devour, they passed the evening in roasting the marrow bones and regaling themselves with their contents.

Kane’s depiction of a group of buffalo, in Wanderings of an Artist, p. 143.

For the next two or three days we fell in with only a single buffalo, or small herds of them; but as we proceeded they became more frequent. At last our scouts brought in word of an immense herd of buffalo bulls about two miles in advance of us. They are known in the distance from the cows, by their feeding singly, and being scattered wider over the plains, whereas the cows keep together for the protection of the calves, which are always kept in the centre of the herd. A half-breed, of the name of Hallett, who was exceedingly attentive to me, woke me in the morning, to accompany him in advance of the party, that I might have the opportunity of examining the buffalo whilst feeding, before the commencement of the hunt, Six hour’s hard riding brought us within a quarter mile of the nearest of the herd. The main body stretched over the plains as far as the eye could reach. Fortunately the wind blew in our faces: had it blown towards the buffaloes, they would have scented us miles off. I wished to have attacked them at once, but my companion would not allow me until the rest of the party came up, as it was contrary to the law of the tribe. We, therefore, sheltered ourselves from the observation of the herd behind a mound, relieving our horses of their saddles to cool them. In about an hour the hunters came up to us, numbering about one hundred and thirty, and immediate preparations were made for the chase. Every man loaded his gun, looking to his priming, and examined the efficiency of his saddle-girths.

The elder men strongly cautioned the less experienced not to shoot each other; a caution by no means unnecessary, as such accidents frequently occur. Each hunter then filled his mouth with balls, which he drops into the gun without wadding; by this means loading much quicker and being enabled to do whilst his horse is at full speed. It is true, that the gun is more liable to burst, but that they do not seem to mind. Nor does the gun carry so far, or so true; but that is of less consequence, as they always fire quite close to the animal.

Everything being adjusted, we all walked our horses towards the herd. By the time we had gone about two hundred yards, the herd perceived us, and started off in the opposite direction at the top of their speed. We now put our horses to the full gallop, and in twenty minutes were in their midst. There could not have been less than four or five thousand in our immediate vicinity, all bulls, not a single cow amongst them.

The scene now becomes intense excitement; the huge bulls thundering over the plain in headlong confusion, whilst the fearless hunters rode recklessly in their midst, keeping up an incessant fire at but a few yards’ distance from their victims.

Upon the fall of each buffalo, the successful hunter merely threw some article of his apparel—often carried by him solely for that purpose—to denote his own prey, and then rushed on to another. These marks are scarcely ever disputed, but should a doubt arise as to ownership, the carcase is equally divided among the claimants.

The chase continued only about one hour, and extended over an area of from five to six square miles, where might be seen the dead and dying buffaloes, to the number of five hundred. In the meantime my horse, which had started at a good run, was suddenly confronted by a large bull that made his appearance from behind a knoll, within a few yards of him, and being thus taken by surprise, he sprung to one side, and getting his foot into one of the innumerable badger holes, with which the plains abound, he fell at once, and I was thrown over his head with such violence, that I was completely stunned, but soon recovered my recollection. Some of the men caught my horse, and I was speedily remounted, and soon saw reason to congratulate myself on my good fortune, for I found a man who had been thrown in a similar way, lying a short distance from me quite senseless, in which state he was carried back to the camp.

Kane’s depiction of an accidental fall during the hunt.

I again joined in the pursuit; and coming up with a large bull, I had the satisfaction of bringing him down at the first fire. Excited by my success, I threw down my cap and galloping on, soon put a bullet through another enormous animal. He did not, however, fall, but stopped and faced me, pawing the earth, bellowing and glaring savagely at me. The blood was streaming profusely from his mouth, and I thought he would soon drop. The position in which he stood was so fine that I could not resist the desire of making a sketch, I accordingly dismounted, and had just commenced, when he suddenly made a dash at me. I had hardly time to spring on my horse and get away from him, leaving my gun and everything else behind.

When he came up to where I had been standing, he turned over the articles I had dropped, pawing fiercely as he tossed them about, and then retreated towards the herd. I immediately recovered my gun, and having reloaded, again pursued him, and soon planted another shot in him; and this time he remained on his legs long enough for me to make a sketch. This done I returned with it to the camp, carrying the tongues of the animals I had killed, according to custom, as trophies of my success as a hunter.

I have often witnessed an Indian buffalo hunt since, but never one on so large a scale. In returning to the camp, I fell in with one of the hunters cooly driving a wounded buffalo before him. In answer to my inquiry why he did not shoot him, he said he would not do so until he got him close to the lodges, as it would save the trouble of bringing a cart for the meat. He had already driven him seven miles, and afterwards killed him within two hundred yards of the tents. That evening, while the hunters were still absent, a buffalo, bewildered by the hunt, got amongst the tents, and at last got into one, after having terrified all the women and children, who precipitately took to flight. When the men returned they found him there still, and being unable to dislodge him, they shot him down from the opening in the top.

Our camp was now moved to the field of slaughter, for the greater convenience of collecting the meat. However lightly I wished to think of my fall, I found myself the next day suffering considerably from the effects of it, and the fatigue I had undergone, The man whom I had brought with me as a guide was also suffering much from an attack of the measles. Next day our hunters sighted and chased another large band of bulls with good success. At night we were annoyed by the incessant howling and fighting of innumerable dogs and wolves that had followed us to the hunt, seemingly as well aware of the feast that was preparing for them as we could be ourselves. The plain now resembled one vast shambles: the women, whose business it is, being all busily employed in cutting the flesh into slices, and hanging them in the sun on racks, made of poles tied together. In reference to the immense number of buffaloes killed, I may mention that it is calculated that the half-breeds alone destroy thirty thousand annually.

Having satisfied myself with buffalo hunting amongst the half-breeds, I was anxious to return to the settlement, in order to prosecute my journey. On proposing to set out I found my guide so unwell, that I feared he would not be able to travel. I tried to procure one of the hunters to take his place and return with me, but none of them would consent to travel alone over so large a tract of country, from fear of the Sioux, in whose territory we then were; and who they dreaded, from the late occurrence, would be watching to cut off any stragglers. Being unable to procure a fresh man, I was about to start alone, when my guide, who thought himself better, proposed to accompany me, on condition that he should ride in the cart, and not be expected to attend to the horses or cooking. This I readily agreed to, as his services as guide were of the utmost importance.

We started next morning for the settlement, a distance which I supposed to be somewhat over two hundred miles. A party of twenty hunters escorted us for eight or ten miles, to see that there were no Sioux in the immediate vicinity. We then parted, after taking the customary smoke on separating from friends, I could not avoid a strong feeling of regret at leaving them, having experienced many acts of kindness at their hands … We found a great scarcity of water on our return, most of the swamps that had supplied us on our way out being now dried up by the heat of the season.

We fell in with a great many stray dogs and wolves, which appeared to be led on the scent of the dead carcasses. After hobbling the horses, putting up my tent, and cooking the supper, I then turned in for the night, not without some apprehensions of a hostile visit from the Sioux, as we were still on their hunting grounds, and in the territory of the United States, being still a few miles south of the boundary line. During the night my guide, who was very ill and feverish, cried out that the Sioux were upon us. I started up with my gun in hand, for I slept with it by my side, and rushing out in the dark, was near shooting my own horse, which, by stumbling over one of the tent pins, had alarmed my companion.

Paul Kane, colour sketch, “Camping on the Prairie,” with guide (1846).

We travelled on the next day with as great rapidity as the ill health of my guide would permit, and on the evening of the 30th June, we encamped on the bank of the Pembinaw. I lost considerable time next morning in catching the horses, as they are able from habit to run a considerable distance, and pretty fast, in spite of their hobbles. In the afternoon we arrived at the Swampy Lake, about fourteen miles across. … [passes a damp, mosquito infested night]

After leaving this dismal swamp we were within a day’s march of the settlement; and mt guide, believing himself to be much better, insisted upon my leaving him to drive the cart, whilst I proceeded at a more rapid rate on horseback. This, however, I would not do until I had seen him safely across Stinking River, which the horses had almost to swim in crossing. Having got him over safely, I left him, and proceeded onwards in the direction of the fort. …”

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An 1856 Description, featuring a Buffalo Hunt of 1840

Featured image: Currier and Ives, engraving, “Life on the Prairie. The Buffalo Hunt,”  (1862), based on a painting by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait.

Excerpts from Alexander Ross, Red River Settlement: Its Rise, Progress, and Present State. With Some Account of the Native Races, and Its General History, to the Present Day (London: Smith, Elder & Company, 1856).

Alexander Ross, from portrait printed in The Fur Hunters of the Far West (1855).

[p. 15:] “Formerly all this part of the country was overrun by the wild buffalo, even as late as 1810, and of course frequented by wolves, which are always found in the same neighbourhood.”

[p. 83–84:] “we may here bestow a few words upon the frequenters of the plains, commonly called the half-breeds of Red River, a class we shall have frequent occasion to notice. We ought to remark, by the way, how far this appellation is from expressing the truth, as not a tenth part of their number really belong to Red River, although they have from choice made it the land of their adoption. Hither, in fact have flocked the half-breeds from all quarters east of the rocky mountain ridge, making the colony their great rendezvous and nursing place. … Some are respectable in their habits; others are as improvident as the savages themselves: but the chief dependence of all is upon buffalo hunting or fishing. …

These huntsman resort annually to the plains, where the buffalo abounds, and generally go the journey in carts. The number composing these caravans has been of late years about 350; but they are on the increase.  … It is only the more wealthy or venturesome class of which we here speak as huntsmen—the best of those called by the general name of half-breeds. A second and inferior class of the same people resort to the lakes, and live by fishing. …”

Sarah ‘Sally’ Ross, an Okanagan woman, wife of Alexander, photographed at Red River in later life.

[p. 96:] “The Flammonds were a happy family. Apropos of tea-drinking, the old lady remarked, ‘We passed a fine winter among the Assiniboines. We were twenty-three families, made buffalo robes, dressed leather, and prepared provisions, the whole winter: all of which we sold for tea as soon as earned. The seven opposition traders told us in the spring, that we had drank twenty-five chests!’ These people emulate each other in making the blackest and bitterest tea.”

[p. 204:] “Tea is now nearly as common in the Indian camp as in the settlement; but the half-breeds surpass everything yet heard of in the article of tea-drinking. In a small camp last winter, among the buffalo, there were thirty-eight adults, men and women, and forty-six children; and this small community, in the course of seven months, with the addition of a few Indians, consumed the enormous quantity of 3,528 pounds of tea! … [which] surpasses Mrs. Flammond, the jolly hostess …”

[p. 235:] “First, then, the class of which we are [now] speaking may be considered, in a general sense, as the children of the Hudson’s Bay Company—at any rate their adopted children; that Company having, at the period of the coalition [1821] with the North-West Company, become by law the rightful owners of their parents’ inheritance.”

[p. 241–273:] “… we turn more particularly to our proposed subject—the plains and plain-hunters. Buffalo hunting here … has become a popular and favourite amusement among all classes; and Red River, in consequence, has been brought into some degree of notice, by the presence of strangers from foreign countries. We are now occasionally visited by men of science as well as men of pleasure. The war road of the savage, and the solitary haunt of the bear, have of late been resorted to by the botanist, and the geologist; nor is it uncommon now-a-days to see Officers of the Guards, Knights, Baronets, and some of the higher nobility of England, and other countries, coursing their steeds over the boundless plains, and enjoying the pleasure of the chase among the half-breeds and savages of the country. Distinction of rank is, of course, out of the question; and, at the close of the adventurous day, all squat down in merry mood together, enjoying the social freedom of equality round Nature’s table, and the novel treat of a fresh buffalo-steak served up in the style of the country—that is to say, roasted on a forked stick before the fire; a keen appetite their only sauce, cold water their only beverage. …

With the earliest dawn of spring, the hunters are in motion, like bees, and the colony in a state of confusion, from their going to and fro, in order to raise the wind, and prepare themselves for the fascinating enjoyments of hunting. It is now that the Company, the farmers, the petty traders, are all beset by their incessant and irresistible importunities. The plain mania brings everything else to a stand. One wants a horse, another an axe, a third a cart; they want ammunition, they want clothing, they want provisions; and though people may refuse one or two they cannot deny the whole population, for indeed over much obstinacy would not be unattended with risk. Thus the settlers are reluctantly dragged into profligate speculation—a system fraught with much evil, and ruinous alike to the giver and receiver of such favours.

The plain-hunters, finding they can get whatever they want without ready money, are led into ruinous extravagances; but the evil of the long credit system does not end here, It is now deeply rooted, and infused into all affairs and transactions of the place. Nor, indeed, is this the worst. The baneful influence of these wild and licentious expeditions over the minds and morals of the people is so uncontrollable, that it unhinges all their ideas, and draws into its illusive train, not only the hunters, but almost every class of our population. So many temptations, so many attractions are held out to the thoughtless and giddy, so fascinating is the sweet air of freedom, that even the offspring of Europeans, as well as natives, are often induced to cast off their habits of industry, and leave their comfortable homes to try their fortunes in the plains; there, however, disappointment and ruin never fail to convince them of their error, and dearly at last do they repent their folly.

The practical result of all this may be stated in few words. After the expedition starts, there is not a manservant or maid-servant to be found in the colony. At any season but seed time and harvest time, the settlement is literally swarming with idlers; but at these urgent periods, money cannot procure them. This alone is most injurious to the agricultural class, and if so, to every other in the settlement; but we will now also look at the subject in another light—by calculating the actual money value expended in one trip, estimating also their lost time as follows:—

Hence the variety of articles and the large sum required for the outfit of one expedition; one half of the whole amount is generally on credit, depending on the uncertain and doubtful returns of the trip, to liquidate the debt.

To illustrate the subject further by this year’s expedition. On the 15th of June, 1840, carts were seen to emerge from every nook and corner of the settlement, bound for the plains. As they passed on, many things were discovered to be still wanting, to supply which a halt had to made at Fort Garry shop; one wanted this thing, another that, but all on credit. The day of payment was yet to come: it was promised. Many on the present occasion were supplied, many were not: they got and grumbled, and grumbled and got, till they could get no morel and at last went off, still grumbling and discontented.

From Fort Garry the cavalcade and camp-followers went crowding on to the public road, and then, stretching from point to point, till the third day in the evening, when they reached Pembina, the great rendezvous on such occasions. When the hunters leave the settlement, it enjoys that relief which a person feels on recovering from a long and painful sickness. Here, on a level plain, the whole patriarchal camp squatted down like pilgrims on a journey to the Holy Land, in ancient days; only not quite so devout, for neither scrip nor staff were consecrated for the occasion. Here the roll was called, and general muster taken, when they numbered, on this occasion, 1,630 souls; and here the rules and regulations for the journey were finally settled.

The officials for the trip were named and installed into office; and all without the aid of writing materials.

The camp occupied as much ground as a modern city, and was formed in a circle; all the carts were placed side by side, the trams outward. These are trifles, yet they are important to our subject. Within this line of circumvallation, the tents were placed in double, treble rows, at one end; the animals at the other in front of the tents. This is the order in all dangerous places; but where no danger is apprehended, the animals are kept on the outside. Thus the carts formed a strong barrier, not only for securing the people and their animals within, but as a place of shelter and defence against an attack of the enemy without.

From this statement [above] it is evident that the plain-hunters are rapidly increasing. There is, however, another appendage belonging to the expedition, and to every expedition of the kind, which we might notice en passant; for the reader may be assured they are not always the least noisy. We allude to the dogs or camp followers. On the present occasion they numbered no fewer than 542; sufficient of themselves to consume no small number of animals per day, for, like their masters, they dearly relish a bit of buffalo meat. These animals are kept in summer, as they are, about the establishments of the fur-traders, for their services in winter. In deep snows, when horses cannot conveniently be used, dogs are very serviceable animals to the hunters in these parts. The half-breed, dressed in his wolf costume, tackles two or three sturdy curs into a flat sled, throws himself on it at full length, and gets among the buffalo unperceived. Here the bow and arrow play their part, to prevent noise; and here the skillful hunter kills as many as he pleases, and returns to camp without disturbing the band.

Many a curious and amusing incident occurs at buffalo-hunting, one of which may be noticed by way of example. A friend of the writer’s, about this time, went to enjoy a few weeks’ sport in the plains, and often repeated, with a comic and serious air, a scene which took place in his own presence. Some of the hunters who were accompanying him were conveying their families across a large plain, intersected here and there with clumps of wood. When in the act of rounding one of those woody islands, a herd of buffalo suddenly burst into view, causing two dogs who were drawing a sled, on which a child and some luggage were being conveyed, to set off at full speed in pursuit, leaving the father and mother in a state of despair for the safety of their only child. The dogs soon reached the heels of the buffalo, and all were mixed pell-mell together; the dogs running, the sled swinging to and fro, and the buffalo kicking. At length a bull gored one of the dogs, and his head getting entangled in the harness, went off at a gallop, carrying the dog on his horns, the other suspended by the traces, and the sled and child whirling behind him. The enraged animal ran a good half mile before he shook himself clear of the encumbrance, although pursued by a large party, by whom many shots were fired at him without effect. The state of the parents’ feelings may be imagined; yet, to their utter astonishment, although both dogs were killed, the child escaped unhurt!

But now to our camp again—the largest of the kind, perhaps, in the world. The first step was to hold a council for the nomination of chiefs or officers, for conducting the expedition. Ten captains were named, the senior on this occasion being

Jean Baptiste Wilkie, in Manton Marble, “Red River and Beyond,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (February 1861).

Jean Baptiste Wilkie, an English half-breed, brought up among the French; a man of good sense and long experience, and withal a fine bold-looking and discreet fellow; a second Nimrod in his way. Besides being captain, in common with the others, he was styled the great war chief or head of the camp; and on all public occasions he occupied the place of president. All articles of property found, without an owner, were carried to him, and he disposed of them by a crier, who went round the camp every evening, were it only an awl. Each captain had ten soldiers under his orders; in much the same way that policemen are subject to the magistrate. Ten guides were likewise appointed; and here we may remark, that people in a rude state of society, unable either to read or write, are generally partial to the number ten. Their duties were to guide the camp, each in his turn—that is day about—during the expedition. The camp flag belongs to the guide of the day; he is therefore standard-bearer in virtue of his office.

The hoisting of the flag every morning is the signal for raising camp. Half an hour is the full time allowed to prepare for the march; but if any one is sick, or their animals have strayed, notice is sent to the guide, who halts till all is made right. From the time the flag is hoisted, however, till the hour of camping arrives, it is never taken down. The flag taken down is the signal for encamping. While it is up, the guide is chief of the expedition. Captains are subject to him, and the soldiers of the day are his messengers: he commands all. The moment the flag is lowered, his functions cease, and the captains’ and soldiers’ duties commence. They point out the order of the camp, and every cart, as it arrives, moves to its appointed place. This business usually occupies about the same time as raising camp in the morning; for everything moves with the regularity of clock-work.

All being ready to leave Pembina, the captains and other chief men hold another council, and lay down the rules to be observed during the expedition. Those made on the present occasion were:—

Having mentioned their honesty, we might state an instance in point: before reaching Pembina, on one occasion, a gentleman on his way to the States forgot, in his camping place, a tin box containing 580 sovereigns in gold, and in silver and bills the amount of 450l. more. The following night, however, a halfbreed named Saint Matte happened to encamp on the same spot, picked up the box, followed the gentleman a day’s journey, and delivered box and contents into his hands to the utmost farthing, well knowing it was money. Considering their poverty, we might well speak of Saint Matte’s conduct in the highest strains of praise. And this act might be taken as an index of the integrity of the whole body, generally speaking. This virtue is fostered among them by the mildest means; for what have such a people to fear from a breach of the penal code? Punishments here are scarcely more than nominal; and may well suggest the question to a more civilized community, whether it is always the severest punishments that have the best effect in reclaiming offenders.

On the 21st, after the priest had performed mass (for we should mention that a Roman Catholic priest generally accompanies these expeditions), the flag was unfurled, it being now six or seven o’clock in the morning. The picturesque line of march soon stretched to the length of some five or six miles, in the direction of south-west, towards Côte à Pizque. At 2 P.M. the flag was struck, as a signal for resting the animals. After a short interval, it was hoisted again; and in a few minutes the whole line was in motion, and continued the route till five or six o’clock in the evening, when the flag was hauled down as a signal to encamp for the night. Distance travelled, twenty miles.

As a people whose policy it is to speak and act kindly towards each other, the writer was not a little surprised to see the captains and soldiers act with so much independence and decision, not to say roughness, in the performance of their camp duties. Did any person appear slow in placing his cart, or dissatisfied with the order of the camp, he was shoved to one side sans ceremonie, and his cart pushed forward or backward into line in the twinkling of an eye, without a murmur being heard. But mark: the disaffected persons are not coerced into order, and made to place their carts in line themselves—the soldiers do it for them, and thus betray their lack of authority; or rather it is their policy so to do, for it would be impossible, in such cases, to proceed to extremes, as in civilized life. The moment the flag was struck it was interesting to see the rear carts hasten to close up, the lagging owners being well aware that the last to arrive must take the ground as it happens, however inconvenient. In less than twenty minutes all was in order.

The camp being formed, all the leading men, officials and others, assembled, as the general custom is, on some little rising ground or eminence outside the ring, and there squatted themselves down, tailor-like, on the grass in a sort of council, each having his gun, his smoking-bag in his hand, and his pie in his mouth. In this situation the occurrences of the day were discussed, and the line of march for the morrow agreed upon. This little meeting was full of interest, and the fact struck me very forcibly, that there is happiness and pleasure in the society of the most illiterate men, sympathetically if not intellectually, as well as among the learned: and I must say, I found less selfishness and more liberality among those ordinary men than I had been accustomed to find in higher circles. Their conversation was free, practical, and interesting; and the time passed on more agreeably than could be expected among such people, till we touched on politics.

Like the American peasantry, these people are all politicians, but of a peculiar creed, favouring a barbarous state of society and self-will; for they cordially detest all the laws and restraints of civilized life, believing all men were born to be free, In their own estimation they are all great men, and wonderfully wise; and so long as they wander about on these wild and lawless expeditions, they will never become a thoroughly civilized people, nor orderly subjects in a civilized community. Feeling their own strength, from being constantly armed, and free from control, they despise all others; but above all, they are marvelously tenacious of their own original habits. They cherish freedom as they cherish life. The writer in vain rebuked them for this state of things, and endeavoured to turn the current of their thoughts into a civilized channel. They are all republicans in principle, and a licentious freedom is their besetting sin.”

[pages’ long diatribe on improvidence and poverty—lest anyone think the hunters are doing well, which would undermine Ross’ sermon/ morality tale: that the wives and children supplement camp provisions (including ‘a little tea, and cups and saucers too—rather fragile ware, for such a mode of life) with wild roots, eaten ‘in a raw state!’ and all manner of smaller game animals and birds while on the trail is presented as proof of ‘misery and want’.]

James Hope Stewart, engraving, “The American Bison,” in William Jardine, The Natural History of the Ruminating Animals, vol. 12, Naturalist’s Library (1836).

“Early in the morning of the 22nd, the flag was hoisted; but reports from various parts of the camp prayed delay. Horses had wandered, oxen could not be found: a hundred horsemen were out in search of the missing animals; some of them, during the night, had returned to Pembina, and before they got back, and all the strayed animals found, many were so exhausted with fatigue that it was judged proper not to resume the march that day. So the flag was hauled down, and strict orders issued for the next morning. In the then starving condition of the camp [Ross, who apparently eschewed eating naturally available food, may be suspected of having one of the few ‘hungry’ camps] a day’s delay was a serious consideration; but it was unavoidable. When animals are allowed to stray, the turmoil and hallooing about the camp and environs is deafening; and the pursuit in search of them, as well as the harassing work bringing them back again, is far more destructive to the animals, on expeditions of this kind, than the regular march itself. Hence the necessity of guarding them well at night, apart from the risk they run of being stolen by the enemy when out of sight of the camp.

Of late years, the field of chase has been far distant from Pembina; and the hunters do not so much as know in what direction they may find the buffalo, as these animals frequently shift their ground. It is a mere leap in the dark, whether at their outset the expedition takes the right or wrong road; and their luck in the chase, of course, depends materially on the choice they may make. The year of our narrative they travelled a south-west or middle course; being the one generally preferred, since it leads past most of the rivers near their sources, where they are easily crossed. The only inconvenience attending this choice is the scarcity of wood, which in a warm season is but a secondary consideration.

Not to dwell on the ordinary routine of each day’s journey, it was the ninth day from Pembina before we reached the Cienne [sic] river, distant only about 150 miles; and as yet we had not seen a single band of buffalo. On the third of July, our nineteenth day from the settlement, and at a distance of little more than 250 miles, we came in sight of our destined hunting ground; and on the day following, as if to celebrate the anniversary of American independence, we had our first buffalo race. Our array in the field must have been a grand and imposing one to those who had never seen the like before. No less than 400 huntsmen, all mounted, and anxiously waiting for the word, ‘Start!’ took up their position in a line at one end of the camp, while Captain Wilkie, with his spy-glass at his eye, surveyed the buffalo, examined the ground, and issued his orders. At 8 o’clock the whole cavalcade broke ground, and made for the buffalo; first at a slow trot, then at a gallop, and lastly at full speed. Their advance was over a dead level, the plain having no hollow or shelter of any kind to conceal their approach. We need not answer any queries as to the feeling and anxiety of the camp on such an occasion. When the horsemen started, the cattle might have been a mile and a half ahead; but they had approached to within four or five hundred yards before the bulls curved their tails or pawed the ground. In a moment more the herd took flight, and horse and rider are presently seen bursting in among them; shots are heard, and all is smoke, dust, and hurry. The fattest are first singled out for slaughter; and in less time than we have occupied with the description, a thousand carcasses strewn in the plain.

Buffalo hunt

“Buffalo Chase,” in Manton Marble. “To Red River and Beyond,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine (October 1860).

Those who have seen a squadron of horse dash into battle, may imagine the scene, which we have no skill to depict. The earth seemed to tremble when the horses started; but when the animals fled, it was like the shock of an earthquake. The air was darkened; the rapid firing at first, soon became more and more faint, and at last died away in the distance. Two hours, and all was over; but several hours more elapsed before the result was known, or the hunters reassembled; and who is he so devoid of feeling and curiosity, that could not listen with interest to a detail of the perilous adventure.

The moment the animals take to flight, the best runners dart forward in advance. At this moment a good horse is invaluable to his owner; for of the four hundred on this occasion, not above fifty got the first chance of the fat cows. A good horse and experienced rider will select and kill from ten to twelve animals at one heat, while inferior horses are contented with two or three; but much depends on the nature of the ground. On this occasion the surface was rocky, and full of badger-holes. Twenty-three horses and riders were at one moment all sprawling on the ground; one horse, gored by a bull, was killed on the spot, two more disabled by the fall. One rider broke his shoulder blade; another burst his gun, and lost three of his fingers by the accident; and a third was struck on the knee by an exhausted ball. These accidents will not be thought over numerous, considering the result; for in the evening no less than 1,375 tongues were brought into camp.

The rider of a good horse seldom fires till within three or four yards of his object, and never misses; and, what is admirable in point of training, the moment the shot is fired, his steed springs on one side to avoid stumbling over the animal; whereas an awkward and shy horse will not approach within ten or fifteen yards, consequently the rider has often to fire at random, and not unfrequently misses; many of them, however, will fire at double that distance, and make sure of every shot. The mouth is always full of balls; they load and fire at the gallop, and but seldom drop a mark, although some do to designate the animal.

When the runners leave the camp, the carts prepare to follow to bring in the meat. The carters have a bewildering task to perform; they have to make their way through a forest of carcasses, till each finds out his own. The pursuit is no sooner over than the hunter, with coat off and shirt sleeves tucked up, commences skinning and cutting up the meat; with the knife in one hand, the bridle hanging in the other, and the loaded gun close by, he from time to time casts a wistful look around, to see that no lurking enemy is at hand watching for the opportunity to take a scalp. The hunter’s work is now retrograde: the last animal killed is the first skinned, and night, not unfrequently, surprises him at his work; what then remains is lost, and falls to the wolves; hundreds of animals are sometimes abandoned, for even a thunder-storm, in one hour, will render the meat useless The day of a race is as fatiguing for the hunter as the horse; but the meat once in camp, he enjoys the very luxury of idleness. Then the task of the women begins, who do all the rest; and what with skins, and meat, and fat, their duty is a most laborious one.

Lithograph based on George Catlin, painting, “Buffalo Hunt: White Wolves Attacking Buffalo Bull,” (c. 1834). Source; Library and Archives Canada Mikan no. 2947074.

We have stated, that when skinning the animals late, or at a distance, the hunters often run great risks. Many narrow escapes are reported on such occasions. It was while occupied on this duty, in an unfortunate moment, that Louison Vallé, as already noticed, lost his life by some lurking Sioux, who had concealed themselves among the long grass. Vallé had his son, a young boy, with him, who at the time happened to be on his father’s horse keeping a look-out. At the critical moment, he had shifted his ground a few yards, and the enemy rushing in upon him suddenly, he had just time to call out to the boy, ‘Make for the cam, make for the camp!’ and instantly fell under a shower of arrows. But the deed was not long unrevenged. The boy got to camp, the alarm was given, and ten half-breeds, mounting their horses, overtook the murderers in less than an hour. The Sioux were twelve in number; four got into the bushes, but the other eight were overtaken and shot down like beasts of prey. One of the half-breeds had a narrow escape, an arrow passing between his shirt and skin; the others got off scot free, and all returned to the camp in safety.

Buffalo-hunting is called a sport, but the most miraculous and hair-breadth escapes sometimes occur, while at others no escape is possible: the hunter getting alongside an enraged animal, it makes a sudden thrust sideways, gores the horse, and occasionally kills the rider. It is with the buffalo as with rabbits, whether from the situation of the eyes, or some other cause, they see better sideways than straight forward. The writer was one of a party once, running buffalo, and while making our way through a herd, looking here and there, as the custom is, for the fattest animal before firing, a bull, hard pressed, turned suddenly round on one of my companions, who happened to be near me at the time; to avoid the thrust in this dilemma, the horse made also a sudden start to one side, when the saddle-girth gave way, and the rider, saddle and all, were left between the bull’s horns, which so surprised the sturdy brute, that with one toss of his head he threw the man high up in the air. Strange to relate, he fell on another bull passing a few yards off, and yet escaped with the fright alone, having received no other injury.”

[long passage describing the ‘chamois-hunters of the Alps’ as being overly drawn to the chase, a ‘savage habit’ incompatible with pursuing agriculture]

Of all the operations which mark the hunter’s life, and are essential to his ultimate success, the most perplexing, perhaps, is that of finding out and identifying the animals he kills during a race. Imagine four hundred horsemen entering at full speed a herd of some thousand buffalo, all in rapid motion. Riders in clouds of dust and volumes of smoke, which darken the air, crossing and re-crossing each other in every direction; shots on the right, on the left, behind, before, here, there, two, three, a dozen at a time, everywhere in close succession, at the same moment. Horses stumbling, riders falling, dead and wounded animals tumbling here and there, one over the other; and this zig-zag and bewildering mèlée continued for an hour or more together in wild confusion; and yet, from practice, so keen is the eye, so correct the judgment of the hunter, and so discriminating his memory, that after getting to the end of the race, he can not only tell the number of animals he had shot down, but the position in which each lies—on the right or on the left side—the spot where the shot hit, and the direction of the ball; and also retrace his way, step by step, through the whole race, and recognize every animal he had the fortune to kill, without the least hesitation or difficulty. To divine how this is accomplished bewilders the imagination. To unriddle the Chinese puzzles, to square the circle, or even to find out the perpetual motion, seems scarcely more puzzling to the stranger, than that of a hunter finding out his own animals after a buffalo race.

among the buffalo

J.M. Butler et al, engraving, “Among the Buffalo,” in John Charles Frémont, Memoirs of My Life: Including in the Narrative Fiver Journeys of Western Exploration, during the years 1842, 1843–4, 1845–6–7, 1848–9, 1853–4 (1886), 591.

The writer asked one of the hunters how it was possible that each could know his own animals in such a mélange? He answered by putting a question remarkable for its appropriate ingenuity. ‘Suppose,’ said he, ‘that four hundred learned persons all wrote words here and there on the same sheet of paper, would not the fact be that each scholar would point out his own handwriting?’ It is true, that practice makes perfect; but with all the perfection experience can give, much praise is due to the discriminating knowledge of these people; quarrels being rare indeed among them on such occasions.

When the buffalo are very numerous, as was the case this year, they run several times in succession, and then a day or two is set apart for drying and manufacturing the provisions, which is done on low stages by the heat of the sun. All provisions, however, keep the better if made a little crispy with the heat of the fire. In the early part of the season the bulls are fat and the cows lean; but in the autumn the case is the reverse, the bulls are lean and the cows fat. A bull in good condition will yield 45 lbs. of clean rendered tallow; cows, when in good order, will produce, on an average, 35 lbs. Flesh and bones, however, boiled down and consumed, will yield fully double that quantity.”

[a long passage devoted to Ross’ ideas on how to improve the hunt, which text he uses to repeat to the reader that hunters are, of course, people in a state of chronic want, and he includes imagined statistics regarding the number of animals needed to produce the ‘375 bags of pemmican and 240 bales of dried meat’ that he calculates were made in 1840—all calculations, however, based on imagined numbers]

“Abundance now caused every countenance to smile with joy, and the profligate waste of to-day obliterated all remembrance of the starvation of yesterday. The regulations of the camp not permitting us to remain longer than three days in one place, and the animals having left us, we raised camp to follow them, which led us far south to the elevated plateau, which divides the waters that debouch into Hudson’s Bay, from those that flow into the Missouri. On the 16th we encamped on the bank of the latter river, when about forty of our hunters went on a visit to the American trading post, called Fort Union. Here they were kindly received, and bartered away furs and provisions for articles they either fancied or were in actual need of; and, among other good things, the prohibited article of whisky, at four pounds sterling the gallon, abating nothing for what the Missouri had contributed to it. Our people, however, avowed it was the best liquor they ever drank, for it made no one drunk.*

[‘* The tariff of the Missouri trader is very high compared with ours in Red River. A knife costs 5s.; a pound of course plug tobacco the same; and a common blanket 25 s.; being considerably more than double of our prices for similar articles.’

After passing a week on the banks of the Missouri, we turned to the west, where we had a few races with various success. We were afterwards for some time led backwards and forwards at the pleasure of the buffalo, often crossing and re-crossing our path, until we had travelled to almost every point of the compass.

Breaking camp 1850s Dakota

Detail of lithograph (1911), based on Alfred Sully, watercolour, “Dakota Sioux Breaking Camp,” showing chief and headmen “of the early 1850’s.”

While in this quarter, one of the Sioux chiefs, called the ‘Terre qui brule,’ or Burnt Earth [Mah-Kah-Kee-Dah/ Makaideya, Mdewakanton Dakota; fought against the Sac and Fox at Bad Axe, 1832; died 1884], and his band, visited our camp. The affair of Vallé, and the eight Sioux who had been killed, was the subject of their mission. Among other things, the chief accused the half-breeds of wanton cruelty, ‘Only one of your friends fell,’ said he, ‘and for that one, you murdered eight of my countrymen.’ After some time, however, the affair was amicably settled. An Indian chief is always well received and kindly treated by the half-breeds. These people have a lively sympathy for the Indians, unless their half civilized, half barbarian blood is raised; and then they are worse than the worst of savages, for their cruelty and revenge have no bounds. A small collection was made and given to the chief, according to custom, and we parted good friends, as far as outward appearances went. We, nevertheless, kept a strict watch day and night; and this was rendered the more necessary as we had noticed several suspicious parties on the distant hills.”

[description of Sioux methods of communication over distances; then a passage on the inevitability of the demise of plains dwellers, and buffalo, in the face of ‘a more genial and interesting order of things … the husbandman and the plough.’]

“After a few more rambles and buffalo-hunts, we turned our backs to the south, and came gently down the smooth and undulating hills and dales, shrubless and bare, that lead to the north. The place being rather suspicious, the scouts and armed parties were sent out to reconnoitre, and to occupy the heights; viewed from which, the line of carts, several miles in extent presented an interesting and somewhat imposing aspect. Here Wilkie, with the officials grouped around him, stood viewing the different parties as they drew up to the camp with as much dignity and self-satisfaction as Wellington could have marshalled his victorious army after the battle of Waterloo.

But we had not long enjoyed these pleasing reflections, when one of the reverses so common in these parts darkened the sunshine of our happiness. In the morning of the 22nd, the atmosphere became suddenly overcast; the lightning flashed in vivid gleams, and presently two of our horses were struck dead. There was a lull till about 2 o’clock in the afternoon, when suddenly one of the most terrific storms ever witnessed, perhaps burst upon the camp. Thunder, lightning, wind, and rain, contended violently for the mastery. our camp was pitched on a high rocky ground, and yet, in the course of ten minutes’ time, the deluge of rain that fell set everything afloat. The camp was literally swimming. Several children were with difficulty saved from drowning; and so fierce and overwhelming was the wind, that the tents were either flattened to the ground, or fluttering like ribbons in the air. During this distressing scene, three of the lodges were struck by lightning, in one of which a Canadian named Courchaine was killed, and a gun which stood by him melted in several parts like lead; in the second, an Indian and his wife, and two children, being all that were in the same fate; two dogs were also killed. The inmates of the third tent escaped. Thunder-storms are of common occurrence at this spot, and we heard that two Indians were killed there the year before. …

[description of hail storms, Ross again underlining how dangerous and anxiety-inducing a hunter’s life must be]

On the 25th, as we drew near the Chienne River on our way home, while the hunters were busy drying their provisions for a fresh start, between forty and fifty Saulteaux, attached as camp-followers to the expedition, went off a distance of some ten miles to surprise and destroy a small camp of Sioux … [description of a conflict between Saulteaux and Sioux that Ross did not witness and may or may not have taken place] … We ought to have mentioned, that as soon as the Indians set off to find the Sioux, six of the half-breeds mounted their horses, made a circuit to reach a neighbouring height, and there remained smoking their pipes, and looking at their friends during the whole time of combat. [description of Sioux retaliation, reputedly diffused by ‘half-breed … mediators’ so that nothing happened, but Ross decides ‘Indians’ should not be allowed on the Red River hunt]

On leaving the river Chienne, Parisien, the same fellow who joined the Saulteaux against the Sioux, got into the dumps, and forked off to take a road of his own, contrary to the regulations of the camp, when Hallett, one of the captains, rode after him, and with a crack or two of his whip, turning his horses, brought them back to the camp. The fellow said nothing, but sat down in gloomy mood; after some little time, thinking better of it, he got up and followed his carts. [Ross again has a better idea on how to run the hunt] … A day or two afterwards, however, when getting out of danger, and within a short distance from the Côte à Picque, several small bands forked off under various pretenses, and were allowed to go. The main party, however, kept on its course till it reached Pembina. Here all the functions of the men in office ceased, the camp broke up, and the different parties, as they got ready, threaded their way to the settlement, where they arrived on the 17th August, after a journey of two months and two days. …” [Ross then argues that the hunt had a terrible effect on the farms and the farmers made no profit from hunting—again making calculations based on imagined numbers—and claims he knows of no hunter who ever did better than break even.]

hunters camp

Alexander Moncrieff, watercolour, “Half Breed Buffalo Hunters Camp, October 1857.”


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1860 Nor’-Wester buffalo-related references (articles and ads)

Featured image: George Seton, watercolour, “Buffalo Hunter’s Camp,” dated 5 May 1858. Source: Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1950-63-1.6R.

Advertisement, Nor’-Wester (28 March, April, and May 1860):

“The Fur Trade. Return of the Hunters,” Nor’-Wester (14 May 1860), 3:

“The busy season of the fur-merchant is close at hand. Many of the traders and hunters have already arrived with the furs they have been able to collect during the winter, and their number is being increased every day with fresh arrivals. On the whole, they appear to have done tolerably well. The principal traffic has been in buffalo robes, the finer furs being somewhat scarce. The fur-trade is no longer monopolised by the Hudson’s Bay Company. Although they may claim the exclusive right, under their charter, to hunt and to traffic with the Indians, that right has not of late years been enforced. And hundreds of private individuals every winter pitch their tents on the plains, and hunt their food, and trap, and barter for furs for the American and European markets. These persons resolve themselves into two classes—the hunter, who follows the pursuits both of bartering for furs and hunting for them—in most cases doing very little in either line of business; and the ‘freeman,’ who confines himself almost exclusively to the trade of selling goods to the Indians, receiving their furs in payment—a profitable occupation, as the many who have become independent thereby can fully testify. The expeditions generally leave the settlement in the month of September and return in May or the beginning of June. The valley of the Saskatchewan is the principal field of their operations, and here they keep up a brisk competition with the Company. Among civilised men, competition is said to be the life of the trade. But here, if it is continued on the same principle as that on which it is now conducted, it will before long prove its death: for the abominable fire-water which forms so large a proportion of the value of the white man’s commodities, will leave no Indians to carry on the traffic. The Indians are fully sensible of the low depths of degradation to which they are being sunk by the introduction of spirituous liquors into their country, and bitterly complain of being subjected to temptations which they are helpless to resist. It is really distressing to see so interesting a race of people hopelessly debased in order to satisfy the cupidity of a few unprincipled traders, and we earnestly hope that the Fur-Trade Council will not close its session next month without doing something to check this disgraceful traffic.

This year the majority of the hunters and traders wintered between the Missouri and the Touchwood Hills, having started too late to enable them to proceed onward in the direction of the Rocky Mountains. The country which is richest in the fur-bearing animals is that further north; but its distance from the Settlements and the extreme cold, leave the Company in undisputed sway. The Indians are getting wary of the hunters, who, they say, drive away the buffalo by running them on horseback. They gave them free liberty to hunt, Indian fashion—that is by creeping stealthily up to the animals and then firing; forbidding them, however, to chase the buffalo with horses. Some of the hunters, therefore, unaccustomed to this mode of attack, have made but little by their expedition. The main body of the party who have already returned, are a present camped at the White Horse Plains, where they are holding out for higher prices than the Company (who are their chief customers) seem disposed to give; although it is said that they will purchase the furs at any rates rather than allow them to fall into the hands of other speculators. In the absence of transactions, it is not possible to give other than an approximate tariff; appending the prices stated by the Montreal Commercial Review to prevail at St. Paul and Montreal respectively. Our rates are given in sterling money—those of the foreign markets in dollars and cents:

We would supplement the above lists by stating that buffalo robes in bundles unassorted may be bought her for about £[illegible: 5.30.02? 5.00.02?].”

“The Summer Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (14 June 1860), 2:

“The last of the carts left a few days ago for the summer buffalo hunt on the Western prairies. From what we can learn, the expedition is not quite so large this season as it has been in years gone by, many of the hunters reserving themselves for the ‘dry meat hunt’ in the autumn. Mr. Chapin, an American gentleman whose arrival with Mr. Kittson we noticed a short time ago, forms one of the present party. It is reported that the Sioux Indians are peaceably disposed, and will offer no obstacle to the half-breed hunters penetrating their country.”

Notice, Nor’-Wester (14 June 1860), 2:

“Back from the Plains,” Nor’-Wester (14 July 1860), 3:

“A few of the plain-hunters who left the Settlement about a month ago, returned this week. They belonged to the main-river party; but did not continue with it over a few days after reaching the buffalo, which were so plentiful that the plains were literally covered with them. In two or three ‘runs’ the hunters shot enough of the game to load their carts. The main body are expected to arrive here shortly. While on this trip, they fell in with a large band of Sioux near Devil’s Lake; it was supposed they could not have numbered less than 1,000 fighting men. This formidable body continued alongside of them for several days, and many were the interlocutions before a proper understanding could be come to. Suspicions and counter-suspicions being at length quieted, the peace concluded last winter at Fort Garry was confirmed and acted upon. It was stipulated, however, that there should be no sly approaches to each other’s camps by night, and that if any infringed this rule, those molested were at liberty to shoot the culprits. On the day of parting, the Halfbreeds made some presents to the Sioux chiefs, and so there will be good feeling at least for this year, The White Horse Plain hunters refused to make any peace last winter, fearing that it would, on the part of the Sioux, be simply masked treachery. Consequently, the Sioux are at liberty to act with or against them, as they please. When the main-river party left, the Sioux set out to find the White Horse Plain folks and offer them terms of peace and friendship or—do something worse. Our informants add, that some disease had broken out in the Sioux camp which was attended with fearful results—about fifty having died in less than a month. Not long before, these Sioux had obtained from the United States officials on the frontier a large quantity of goods which they believed contained (whether designedly or not) the elements of that destructive disease. It adds to a conviction which they have long cherished, that the Yankees would like very well to see them thinned, if not exterminated, and would even help in securing that object.”

“The Summer Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (14 August 1860), 2:

“[I]n another part of to-fay’s paper will be found a well-written article, the first of two communications to the columns of The Nor’-Wester, on the subject of the buffalo-hunt. The party to which our contributor was attached was what is known as the ‘main-river band,’ and was made up almost exclusively of hunters and their families residing on the Red River between Fort Garry and Pembina. Another expedition—the ‘White Horse Plain Hunters’—taking its name from the district in which its ranks are for the most part filled, but including also many others living on the Assiniboine from its mouth to Portage la Prairie, its most remote settlement—went out about the same time; with what success we have not yet heard. It should be remarked that there are two seasons for hunting the buffalo—summer and autumn. Of the beef killed in the summer, a small quantity is dried in thin strips, and the remainder chopped up very small and made into pemican—a highly concentrated and healthy food, much used by travellers and by the laboring part of the Red River population: whilst the cattle killed in the autumn are preserved fresh, by the action of frost, throughout the winter. Hence, the former is called the ‘dried meat hunt,’ and the latter the ‘green-meat hunt.’ The flesh of the beast derived from the summer chase is turned to the most profitable account; on the other hand, the skin is more valuable in autumn, the animal at that time putting on his warm, thick coat to protect himself from the rigors of winter. The quantity of buffalo-meat annually slaughtered and cured throughout the country for pemican is something surprising. The Indians draw from the chase their sole supplies. The Hudson’s Bay Company’s servants on the Saskatchewan have little else to depend upon, and when, as last year, this source fails them, are reduced to short rations of horse-steaks and boiled dog. And, as we have already remarked, the strong, brawny arms and stout, muscular frames of our own people draw their chief support and nourishment from the same staff of life. To provide for all these demands requires great exertion; and thus it is that hundreds, we might safely say thousands in our midst make hunting the buffalo the great concern of their lives. The muster-roll of the main-river party alone swells to the dimensions of an army. Here it is—not simply derived from mere approximation, but correctly ascertained by a close and careful count:—500 men, 600 women, 680 children; 730 horses, 300 oxen, and 950 carts. As may be supposed, such a formidable host, with appetites sharpened by the pure, invigorating breezes of the plains and the life-giving exercise of the chase, was capable of doing a vast amount of execution to the provisions; and one scarcely wonders on being told that two or three thousand fat carcases [sic] would barely serve them in food until they got home. The buffalo first appeared in sight in the neighbourhood of Bad Hill, about sixty miles from the boundary line, and in a run in which 220 hunters were engaged, 1,300 buffalo were shot. The camp then moved southwards by the Sand Hills, until they came within five miles of the Little Souris River, and at this place they killed over 1,000. Here they stayed awhile to fry their meat and manufacture pemican, and whilst thus occupied a herd of about 250 came by at a trot, running their last race; they were all brought down and converted into pemican. After that, and up to the latest time intelligence came from the camp, three small herds—one of 80, another of 30, and a third of 15—were destroyed and consumed on the plains. Buffalo growing scarce, the expedition moved back to Devil’s Lake, where the more serious business of buffalo shooting was relived by bear, beaver, and deer hunt. This sport over—and good sport it was, several grizzly bears and a variety of lesser animals being made to bite the dust—a council was held and a resolution passed to go to the Couteau de la Prairie to hunt the buffalo which were still wanting to fill the carts. Mr. Chapin, a gentleman from Philadelphia, and Lieut, Whure, R.C.R., accompanied the party, and, for young hunters, were unusually successful. Mr. Chapin killed ten buffalo, and Lieut. Whyte seven or eight.”

“Fatal Accident in the Plains,” Nor’-Wester (14 August 1860), 3:

“Off to the Buffalo Hunt. Interview with the Hunters and Sioux,” Nor’-Wester (14 August 1860), 4:

“The stirring accounts which I had heard of the exciting sport of buffalo running-running inspired me with a desire to employ a few weeks’ leave at my disposal in a visit to the Plains to take part in the first of the semi-annual hunts. The Brigade which I accompanied consisted of hunters from Pembina, St. Joseph, and a few from the Settlement. At a later period we were joined by the main body of the Red River party, and as both brigades thought numbers of importance in case of any hostile meeting with the Sioux, we remained together. On the morning of the 11th June, we crossed the pretty river of Pembina, at the point where it flows past St. Joseph, at the foot of the Mountain. Ascending this mountain in advance of the brigade, and looking down on the valley below, the scene that lay before me was picturesque in the extreme. The long line of cats, with their white coverings, slowly winding their way upward—the riders in advance, whose firm seats and easy bearing bespoke them the free children of the west—hunters that knew no fear—combined to form a tout ensemble well worthy of the painter’s brush. Arrived at the summit of the mountain, the party halted for dinner, and this our first repast was well watered by the rains of heaven. We procured a supply of wood here, sufficient to last us two or three weeks, as it was not probable we should be able to obtain any more before the expiration of that period, and then resumed our journey, halting an hour before sunset. At night, our camp was pitched in a circle—he carts being formed into a ring, in rear of which the tents were placed, each tent behind its own carts. Inside this ring the horses and cattle are placed from sunset to sunrise, to prevent them being stolen by the Sioux, who have the reputation—a well-earned one, indeed—of being clever horse-stealers. The neighing of horses and the bellowing of cattle close to my tent at first rather disturbed my slumbers. One soon gets accustomed to that kind of noise, but to another, never. I refer to the howling and barking of a few thousand dogs which accompanied the brigade for the purpose of being fattened for the winter. These brutes seemed to delight in noise, and the bark of one was quite sufficient to get the entire canine population of the camp yelping in full chorus. Their howling was really diabolical—surpassing, in my opinion, the performance of the curs of far-famed Constantinople, that city par malheur of dogs.

In the night time the camp is guarded by soldiers, usually chosen from among the young hunters of the expedition. These are placed under the orders of the captain of the day, and their duties are to see that the circle is properly formed, without any opening remaining through which horses or cattle might escape, and also to alarm the camp in case of anyone approaching. This duty is taken in turn by the soldiers, according to a written list. Each one is obliged to serve—none are excepted. The captains are chosen by lot, with a due regard to age and ability, whist the whole are under a chief to whom all cases of disputes are referred, and whose decision none may question. At the meetings of the hunters which are occasionally held, the chief and captain [sic: captains] alone speak; the rest obey. Amongst so many followers of the chase, there may, however, be seen some aged men whose looks both time and sorrow have silvered, and to their opinions the chief and captain give a willing and respectful deference. To enforce the laws of the camp, which are numerous and necessary, fines are imposed on those who violate them. These fines vary in magnitude according to the enormity of the offense, and have been found very effectual in preserving order. In the brigade there are twelve guides—hunters of experience, who had travelled the prairie from boyhood, and to these, who take duty in turn, the safe conduct of the party is entrusted Their office is not by any means a sinecure. To avoid marshes, go round lakes, and find a path between precipitous hills, requires a very correct knowledge of the country, and is certainly a very difficult and responsible duty.

We travelled over a rolling prairie, interspersed abundantly with small lakes and marshes, where winged game of all kinds were to be found. Every one on horseback is obliged to carry his gun, in case of any sudden attack by the Sioux, but firing when near buffalo, or supposed to be so, is strictly prohibited, as the noise made might alarm the animals and delay the chase several days.

At the end of a week during which nothing of importance had occurred, except the daily events of [illegible: rains?] and terrific thunder-storms, we determined to visit the Sioux camp, about three days’ journey, and containing 350 lodges and 1,500 braves. On our way thither we were met by a party of thirty Sioux, who remained with us until within half a day’s march of their encampment, when accompanied by a few of the hunters, they pushed on ahead. Of this small party, I made myself one, being anxious to see the Sioux camp. A long and somewhat tedious ride brought us within sight of it, but we were yet fully three miles distant when we were met by the entire mounted population, who escorted us to their dwellings. Some of their horses were very fine animals of American descent, but they were generally small and tough, showing unmistakable signs of Indian blood. The Sioux themselves, painted and feathered as Indians delight to adorn their persons, were really fine-looking men, above the middle height, and made in proportion. Judging by their exclamations, they were well pleased to see us, and in their own primitive fashion they accorded us a friendly welcome. We found the camp pitched on a hill, beneath which lay a pretty lake, whose calm waters reflected back the busy scenes around. The lodges were arranged in a kind of square, with openings between each, and presented an appearance of cleanliness one had expected to see in an Indian settlement of tents. Arrived in in the camp, we were obliged to make the circuit of the lodges to satisfy the curiosity of the feminine part of the community, who, by the bye, are much better looking than the sisterhood of the Cree or Saulteaux [illegible: women?]. Having retired from the presence of the ladies, we were invited into a chief’s tent to eat pemican and smoke the Pipe of Peace. We smoked  little and ate less and were [illegible: passed?] from one lodge to another, in each of which the same scene was enacted. At last, having in this manner made the round of some thirty lodges, we were summoned to take part in the crowning ceremony—a dog-feast, in the soldiers’ lodge.

This lodge was the largest and finest I had yet seen, and the ground was plentifully strewed with handsome furs. When we entered the chief and his warriors were already seated, and they motioned us to take our places on the chief’s right hand.”

Notices, Nor’-Wester (28 August 1860), 2:

“Departure of the Freemen,” Nor’-Wester (28 August 1860), 3:

“Towards the close of last week forty families from the White Horse Plains left on their annual fur-trading and trapping expedition among the Assiniboine and Cree Indians. They will pitch their camps four days’ journey beyond the forks of the Belly and Paint[?] rivers, near the head waters of the Saskatchewan, a few miles north of the 49th parallel—the boundary line dividing British North American from the territory of the United States. Here they run no risk of competition, the Hudson’s Bay Company’s posts on this side of the Rocky Mountains being much farther to the north and to the north-east. Their carts are well laden with goods, to be bartered with the Indians for furs, and they start with every prospect of  profitable termination to their enterprise. They will winter at Belly River, and return to the Settlement about the end of April.”

“The White Horse Plain Hunters,” Nor’-Wester (28 August 1860), 3:

“To-day we complete the account of the summer buffalo-hunt of the Red River and Pembina party up to the time of their leaving Devil’s Lake on a more distant enterprise. The return of the White Horse Plain Brigade enables us also to give the interesting statistics of their expedition. They started on the 10th of June, intending to go to the Grand Coteau, but turned off at the ‘Dog’s House,’ and found buffalo enough near Turtle Mountain and Big Head River to save them the trouble of a longer journey. The party numbered 154 families, including 210 men able to carry arms (of whom 160 were buffalo ‘runners’); and 700 ‘non-combatants,’ women and children. They took with them 642 horses, 50 oxen, 6 cows, 522 dogs, 533 carts, 1 waggon [sic], 232 guns, 10 revolvers, 21,000 bullets, and 270 quarts of gunpowder. They made twelve ‘runs’ in which they killed 3,270 buffalo—1,151 bulls, 1,893 cows, and 226 calves. The carcases [sic] produced 1,964 bags of pemmican, 2,429 bales of dried meat, 15,120 pounds of marrow fat, and 9,600 pounds of tallow. We are very sorry to hear the double misfortune which befell one of the families, making at one stroke a poor woman a widow, a mother, and childless. Alexander Swain had twice discharged his gun, each time bringing down a buffalo, and was loading it again when an accident occurred which deprived him of life. He had put in his powder too soon after the last discharge, and with his mouth over the muzzle was endeavoring to blow it home, when it suddenly ignited and severely burnt his mouth and throat. He fell from his horse in the midst of the chase, and was carried into camp. The injuries he had received prevented him from taking any food and he died two days afterwards from starvation. The shock was so great to the widow that she prematurely gave birth to a child, which was unfortunately smothered by her accidentally falling upon it; and the same grave on the prairie which received the father enclosed also the newly-born infant.”

“The Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (28 August 1860), 4:

“Having somewhat refreshed ourselves, after our hard ride the previous day and night, by a short morning’s nap and hearty breakfast, once more in company with the brigade we got underway, and made our direction the Sioux camp.

This visit of the Halfbreeds to the Sioux was an event of no common occurrence, for generally it is the hunters’ aim to avoid them as much as possible. This year, however, both the Sioux and Halfbreeds wished to make peace which should be binding on both parties, and for this reason the hunters visited the camp of their old antagonists. The riders of our brigade formed a long line in advance of the carts, the captains leading; and certainly it would be no easy matter to find a finer-looking body of mounted men. During the day we were met by large numbers of Sioux on horseback, painted and feathered to an extravagant degree, who joined our riders and sung their wild plaintive songs as they onward rode. Our brigade having arrived within about two miles of the Indian camp, halted, and on the borders of a pretty little lake we pitched our tents. More than ordinary care was taken this evening to make the ring of carts complete, and allow no opening to remain through which the cattle might escape and thus fall an easy prey to the ever-watchful Sioux. Crowds of these curious people visited us from the moment of our arrival till long after the setting of the sun. They rode round and round our camp and never seemed to tire of gazing on us. In horses, carts—in everything, in fact—for to these poor children of the prairie all was new—they found some interest. At length the last rider returned to his camp to make preparations for the great peace-congress of the following day. The morning had scarcely dawned when our hunters were astir and commenced erecting the large tent for the reception of those who were to take part in the day’s proceedings. For a wonder, the weather is fine. About noon the tent is completed; buffalo robes are strewn over the grass; the chief and captains of the brigade have taken their seats; the great pipe is filled but not yet lighted; when, amidst a profound silence, the chiefs of the Sioux nation enter, attended by their body-guard of warriors. On their approach, the hunters rise, shake hands with them, and motion them to be seated. The pipe of peace is now lighted and each one smokes in his turn. The first chief then addresses the hunters in a long and well-spoken speech. He welcomes them to the land of the Dacotahs; expresses his own wish and that of his nation for peace; speaks of war and blood as of events gone by, likening them to the waters of a fast-flowing stream; and ends by presenting a horse to the chief of the hunters. Other chiefs speak next, and each professes a wish that peace might take the place of war, and that Sioux and Halfbreed should be as brothers. And now the hunters speak. In everything they meet the wishes of the Sioux. Peace is their will; for peace they have come hither; the Sioux are to them as the children of one common Father, and as such they call them brethren. A few presents are then given the Sioux, and, with a last smoke of the calumet, the treaty of 1860 is ratified. Next day our new allies paid us a second visit, and for our amusement danced their ‘Buffalo-head Dance.’ The scene was certainly a novel one. Nearly every one of these Indians has the mask of a buffalo head hanging on a post outside his lodge, and this he places upon his head whenever he is called to join in the dance. Sometimes there is attached to it a strip of skin of the entire length of the animal, having the tail attached, which, passing over the back of the dancer, is allowed to drag along the ground. They kept up this dance for several hours and then graciously took all the presents offered to them. Later in the evening, we were again amused by a festival in which Indian girls were the sole performers. They danced and sung remarkably well, and were attired most gracefully in white deer-skin, profusely ornamented with porcupine quills and beads. The moccasins which they wore were adorned with rows of plaited horse-hair, and small strings of tin-work, which tinkled merrily and made a pleasing music during the movements of the dance. They received many presents from the young hunters, which they took with evident pleasure and no small degree of vanity, for amongst their own nation the men seldom pay them such attention. Each Sioux is a knight and lord. His squaws are his slaves, and the only things which he seems worthy of his exertions are, to mount his prancing steed, with his bow and quiver slung, his arrow-shield upon his arm, and, his shining spear in rest, appear upon the war-parade; or, divested of all his plumes and trappings, and armed with a simple bow ad quiver, to ride amongst the flying herd of buffalo, and drive deep to life’s fountain the whizzing arrow.

A third day which we spent with the Sioux was almost entirely devoted to horse-racing and exchange of horses. Early on the morning of the fourth day, we struck camp and bade adieu to our Indian friends.

We journeyed for three days without anything of interest occurring, and on the afternoon of the fourth day we came upon the tracks of buffalo, which some of us followed until we came in sight of the buffalo themselves—a herd of many thousands, quietly grazing at the foot of a neighboring hill. We returned to camp with the pleasing intelligence, and the crier thereupon made his circuit, giving notice that early in the morning the camp would move, and that before noon the first run would be made. A night spent in active preparation precedes the still busier morning. The camp gets early under way, and, after a short journey, halts. The riders then come to the front of the carts, and the captain of the front of the carts, and the captain of the day being appointed, we follow him, and attend to the details of the plan he lays down for the conduct of the chase. From the summit of some rising ground we wee the buffalo, quietly ruminating over the cud, unsuspicious of the impending danger, not more than a mile before us. Dismounting, we unloose the saddle girths, charge our guns, and such as load in the half-breed fashion, place a few bullets in their mouths to enable them to charge a second, third, or fourth time with greater expedition. All our preparations complete, we tighten up the girths, leap into the saddle, and, with our loaded guns, advance in a long line towards the buffalo. The captain leads, and any one who attempts to pass has to pay a heavy fine. We proceed at an easy canter until within some four or five hundred yards of the buffalo, when we break into a hand-gallop [sic: hard gallop?], but still keeping in a long unbroken line. But now the herd discovers us. They wheel about, and are off at full gallop. The captain gives the ‘Advance!’ and all spur their willing steeds, which fly over the prairie in a whirlwind of dust. The hundred yards or so which intervened between the riders and the buffalo are soon passed, and now the bang-bang of the guns is heard, and many a goodly buffalo measures his length on the prairie greensward. Again the guns are loaded, again the report is heard, and again a hundred buffalo bite the dust. After the first grand mélèe one sees buffalo scattered in all directions, and after them in hot pursuit the intrepid hunters, who continue the chase until six or seven head have fallen to each gun. The runners mark their respective buffalo with their distinctive brands, and then return to camp and send out the carts to bring in the carcases [sic]. The hunter’s work is now at an end. His wife and daughters cut up the meat, and dry some of it on poles and make the rest into pemican. For three days after our first run, we ran the same herd of buffalo each day, with varying success. The first day’s run brought down 800 buffalo; the second, 500; the numbers killed on the subsequent days I did not learn. Our provisions being properly dried and cured, we moved camp from where we had now been located for six days—a movement for which I was by no means sorry, for the effluvia arising from the refuse pieces of meat which were left for the wolves was anything but agreeable.

Three or four days’ journey brought us once more in sight of buffalo in such large quantities that they almost blackened the prairie. Again we ran them, and many hundreds more fell to the hunters’ unerring aim. We visited all the likely places for buffalo in the vicinity of the Souris River, and then returned to Devil’s Lake. Some deer were shot on the Cheyenne River and in the small islands which abound in Devil’s Lake. We also killed some brown bears; but the grizzly bears which now and then appeared in the distance were too wary to come within range of the guns. On the Cheyenne I enjoyed much beaver-hunting, which afforded excellent sport.

I had now remained nearly six weeks with the hunter’s brigade, and having seen sufficient for one summer of buffalo hunting and life on the prairie, I left my friends’ camp on the banks of the Cheyenne River, and with a small party of two, which was afterwards increased by two more, returned to the Settlement.”

Advertisement, Nor’-Wester (28 September 1860), 2:

“Hunting at Devil’s Lake,” Nor’-Wester (15 October 1860), 4:

“A letter has reached us from Mt. G.W. Northrup, who is acting as guide to a party of English gentlemen, hunting in the neighborhood of Devil’s Lake, correcting some misapprehensions which have prevailed regarding that section of the country, and giving other particulars of interest to the general reader.

From 200 to 300 carts (he writes) composing the last brigade of hunters, are encamped about six miles from here (Devil’s Lake), to the southward. They are now on their return, and have not been very successful. Many carts are light. They state that the other divisions are more heavily laden.

The Sioux have returned homewards, via the Missouri River. They keep a sharp eye upon their Sisitonan brethren who, having been more industrious with the hoe, are now hopping through the Green Corn Dance and luxuriating on succotash.

We have now been out ten days. Leaving Georgetown, we proceeded directly to the Butte Michaux, and thence north to Wamelushka Lake, up to which point we had not encountered a single buffalo or crossed a fresh trail made this summer. We are now engaged in hunting elk upon the islands and in the heavy timber on thesouth side of the Lake, varying the sport by taking out of the water some of the finest pike I have ever seen.

All agree that the scenery of the Devil’s Lake is unsurpassed, and I know well that no scenery in any other part of Minnesota or Dakota can equal it. On the south side and near the middle of the Lake, rises up to a height of 300 feet the ‘Mini-wakan Chantay,’ from which the view is perfectly charming. Almost the entire Lake can be seen at once. The long black points and islands are densely covered with timber, and the rugged shores and steep bluffs give it a wild and savage aspect. Our Englishmen are delighted with the trip, thus far. Although we have not fallen in with the buffalo yet, we have had a quantity of fresh provisions in the shape of elk, geese, hares, and fish. In regard to fish, I think this lake cannot be excelled. The size of the pike approaches the incredible. I will merely say, that the smallest caught weigh eight or nine pounds, and dead ones to be found occasionally along the shore, would in a healthy state weigh 30 lbs.

We are about to direct our course westward, and expect to fall in with buffalo near the Coteau du Missouri. We shall follow the Coteau towards the White Earth, to hunt antelope, and then proceed along the east bank of the Missouri for the Black Tail or Jumping Deer, returning by the head of the Coteau des Prairies and Big Stone Lake.

A paragraph noticing the return of Sir Grenveille Smith and other Englishmen, appeared in the St. Paul Pioneer, stating also that the waters of Devil’s Lake were salty and unfit for use. Now I write you from the shore of the lake, and assure you that we use the water, and have not discovered in it the least particle of saline impregnation. It has a sweetish taste, but is not at all disagreeable. Wamelushka Lake is strongly impregnated with alkaline, not saline, matter. This is a lake about fifteen miles long, and in the shape of a horse-shoe, Devil’s Lake is nearly forty miles between the extreme points.

Should you notice the fact of our party of hunters being on the plains, you might wish to know our ‘Ogima’s’ name. Mr. Madden is an English officer, who has hunted over most countries—is finishing up on buffalo, elk, and antelope—and has great hopes of punishing a ‘grizzly’ before his return. As guide, I should certainly like to have him meet one, but hardly think that we will be fortunate enough to see one so low down the Missouri.”

“Agricultural and Commercial,” Nor’-Wester (29 October), 4:

“Returned from the Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (29 October 1860) 2:

“Lieut Dunn, of the Royal Canadian Rifles, returned a few days ago, from a hunting excursion in the west. He was six or seven weeks away, and had excellent sport. He set out with the St. Joseph Brigade, but joined the Red River party before returning. The hunt, he says, was on the whole a success. Those in quest of fresh meat were a good deal disconcerted by the extremely fine, warm weather. He went as far as Rivière aux Souris, close to the Grand Coteau. But we forebear at present to enter upon any details—reserving them until the different parties shall have arrived, when we may be enabled to furnish some statistics as well as descriptive sketches.”

Opinion piece [possibly written by Rev. Cochran], “The Plain-Hunting Business,” Nor’-Wester (15 November 1860), 2–3:

“The last of the ‘gens de la prairie‘ have arrived. For a week past, they have been coming in—the late bad weather having proved too severe a test of strength and speed for them all to arrive together. Generally speaking, the hunters have been very successful: in some cases only partially so. Profitable or not, however, the hunting business is over for the year. The three regular annual hunting expeditions to the western plains of Dacotah have already one their work. All is quiet once more. The occasion is, we think, a fitting one for the consideration of the bearings and influences of buffalo-hunting, viewed as the business, or regular, ordinary pursuit of a large proportion of the Red River people.

Some hundreds of young men and old take a jaunt out west, two or three times every year, to provide themselves with meat provisions. What they do not actually use, they dispose of for clothing, groceries, and other necessities. This seems right and proper enough. Everybody has a right to choose their particular method by which he is to make a living—so long, at least, as he does not engage in any business positively illegal or immoral. Still, there are certain respects in which this mode of obtaining a livelihood must be considered objectionable. We believe that it unsettles the minds of those engaged in it—’unsettles’ them, in the sense that they become unfit for those steady and sure, though slow, pursuits which characterize the industrious and the successful in every country. It creates an undue relish for the novel and the exciting, and in the same proportion a dislike of honest, genuine labor. Is this merely theory? It is certainly correct in theory, for our love of ease is natural and strong; and when fostered, soon over-rides all the promptings of a wise forethought, self-interest, or ambition. But we are not borne out by reason alone: our statement will bear the test of facts and every-day experience. It might be said that the hunting is not so much a cause of un-settled, indolent habits, as a result or consequence of them—that is, that the plain-hunters do not become careless or slothful by following this occupation, but follow it because they are so. This distinction may be rather nice and metaphysical; yet we must admit that it has some foundation. As a general thing, the hunters are French or English Halfbreeds—principally the former—and they naturally enough possess traits of character peculiar both to the red man and the white. Their tastes and habits are, in fact, a sort of compromise. They follow to some extent, the quiet, plodding occupations of the European; but also the primitive, easy-going, pleasure-giving pursuits of the Indian. This quite natural and reasonable; and therefore we admit that our plain-hunters may be, to a great extent, biased by physical causes independent of, and anterior to, all acquired habits. Still, we hold that the practice of buffalo-hunting is a cause as well as an effect—it is active as well as passive—it creates or strengthens, as well as indicates, restless habits.

It also encourages extravagance. The quantity of meat provisions consumed by the hunters is something enormous. Although numbering but six or seven hundred souls—counting men, women and children—they use, or rather misuse, as much as would suffice for six or seven thousand in Great Britain, France, or Germany. It is no adequate answer to say that, having little else, they are obliged to use more than they otherwise would. We can say, from personal knowledge, that there is as much wasted about a regular hunter’s establishment in one year, as would supply a small [illegible] of Europeans for the same period. And hence the reproachful jest frequently cast up to them that one day they are feasting, and the next, starving. This is true of a great many. The abundance in which they revel all summer creates habits of extravagance and waste quite incurable. This system continues in winter, when stores cannot be replenished, and the consequence is that matter of course feasting suddenly gives place to awful fasting. And thus leads to another very prevalent end—that of taking debt. Plain-hunters are everlastingly in debt. So systemic, indeed, has this become among them, that the man who is free from debt is accounted a rare curiosity.

Again. The education and general upbringing of the young are much neglected. Boys and girls instead of being kept at school and otherwise trained in what may be useful and beneficial, are made to wander about all summer, like savages. And as to church going and Sabbath-keeping, they are out of the question. So strongly have the Catholic clergy felt this, that they usually send out a priest with the party.

This hunting life denotes a rude or primitive state of society. History teaches that a people who live by hunting are only in the first stage of civilisation. The various periods of a nation’s growth may be denominated: the hunting, the pastoral, the agricultural, and the manufacturing. We do not believe that this regular series will be developed in this country, for such gradation are traceable only in the case of a people emerging from barbarism by their own exertions; but we do think that the first link in the chain holds good here. Our professional hunters are passionately fond of their occupation. They look forward to the summer’s duties with the greatest longing: the pleasures of the chase form the all-absorbing topic at the fireside and by the way. And why so? Because the business just suits the tastes of nature’s children. It is pleasant—allows plenty of time for trifling—requires no skill, and no patient or painstaking exertions. This is the reason why it is with them the occupation of occupations; but this very reason stamps it as outlandish, temporary make-shift, quite unworthy of people pretending to a respectable degree of civilisation. We can understand the eagerness and the relish with which the gentleman-traveller betakes himself to buffalo-hunting. It is something new, and something professedly for pleasure. His case is very different, however, from that of those who live by and for it—who attend to it as formally and regularly as the farmer does to his fields, or the merchant to his goods. No. Our hunters ought, as soon as practicable, to relinquish their present method of gaining a livelihood. It is a very precarious one at best, and cannot be expected to last for ever. Either the Minnesota authorities will put a stop to these gratuitous excursions into their territories, or the ruinous annual slaughter will exterminate the buffalo; and then where will our hunting folks be? They will have unfitted themselves and their children for the quiet, plodding pursuits of honest industry, and will prove a burden and a nuisance to the rest of the settlers.”

“The Fall Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (15 November 1860), 3:

“(Written for the Nor’-Wester)

On Sunday, the ninth day of September, 1860, the quiet little River Pembina had its solitude invaded by its half yearly visitor; the buffalo hunters of the Red River. On that day, a camp of about sixty lodges and six times as many carts was already formed in the valley of the River, at a distance of about 30 miles S. W. of St. Joseph, the little village on Pembina Mountain; and only a few tardy ones were wanting to complete the brigade. The lodges were pitched without regularity, and wherever the whim of the owner led him: each one was like its neighbor, varying but in size, age, and discoloration; from the new, white twelve-skin habitation of the wealthy man; to the shabby, smoky little affair of the one-horse hunter. The carts were ranged round each tent—their number betokening the importance of the owner; for with the buffalo hunters as with the rest of the world, the power of the almighty dollar or its current equivalent in horses and carts is most keenly appreciated. The men generally sat in groups, or paid long visits in one another’s tents, smoking their half and half of weed and tobacco and enjoying a dignified ease; or else shot ducks for their families, for before the buffalo are found it is sometimes difficult to keep the family pot a-boiling. They were of course hard at work fixing their things for the two months journey, and children amused themselves as children always do; with, I think if possible more noise than usual. On the day I speak of, laws had been made to take effect the following morning: a Chief, eight councilors and eight Captains had been elected, guides chosen, and an army of forty soldats raised.—these last I fancy on rather uncertain terms of remuneration. About one third of the hunters came from White Horse Plain, the remainder belonged entirely to the Red River. The people of St. Joseph intended to set out from their village by themselves, while the rest of the White Horse Plain people would form a third party.

Everything being ready, on Monday morning the 10th, the brigades started, A large hill called Nepah-we win, about three miles from the [illegible: right track?] may be considered as the point of departure.

This hill, I am told, is almost sacred among the Indians; it being the place where they used to dance long ago; and they came from immense distances to join in [those periodical hops?], which were, no doubt very grand affairs in their own way, and considered quite as pleasant to all parties concerned as the ball at Montreal the other day. From this hill, our course lay about W. S. W. to the Bout des Bois on the Rivière aux Souris; passed by a hill called the Batte des Braireaux, which has a singular [rock of natural obelisk?] on the top, and Lac des [Robes?] and the thence about [ten?] miles to the south of the Turtle hills; passing which no other great land mark is seen, with the exception of the Rivière aux [Sauls?]—a little muddy stream that falls into the Souris; until we arrived at the Boat des Bois where the belt of wood which is on both sides of the river stands. This part of the journey was made in five days, counting the first night at the Butte des Brairreaux, and the three following at certain nameless swamps well known to the buffalo hunters. The rate of travelling was I should say about 20 or 25 miles a day, and on the fourth day the first buffalo were killed; they were bulls, but meat was [earned?] and that is a thing the prairie people will not do without if is to be got for the killing.

The usual hour for marching was between seven and eight; about half an hour before which the cry of “[attende?]!” resounded through the camp, and a white flag emblazoned “[Pavilion?] Guide” raised on the guide’s cart. At the magic sound a hundred little boys start off to drive the cattle, women bustle and pack the carts, and strike the tents; the children, now quiet as mice make themselves generally useful, the carts are hitched up; the men lit their pipes and all is in readiness to start. At length the guide’s cart, his wife acting as standard bearer drives out from among the others and leads off, the rest following in three or more long lines. And so we travel on till about midday when we halt near water for dinner; to yoke again in an hour’s time and go on as before until sunset; then the carts are drawn up in a ring, cattle un-yoked, tents pitched, fires lighted, and the pot on.

Supper over, and night coming on, the voice of one of the Captains is heard to ring out, “Ho! Ho! Soldats!” Out spring the chosen forty not as one would suppose from their title, to give battle, but to perform the more practical and necessary duty of closing the ring and driving in the cattle, to preserve them from those admirers of horse flesh the Sioux. This duty performed, from some lodge hard by, the prefatory squeak of a fiddle is heard followed by some lively reel or jig as quick as man can scrape cat gut; soon others strike up, accompanied sometimes by a little dancing, performed by a single individual, on a buffalo skin inside a tent. If the night is warm, perhaps a dance is got up outside in which a blushing damsel or two will join, and in such case the evening’s amusement is complete, and all hands vote it “a very delightful ball.” Then there are singing parties; where they sing terribly long songs well known by the audience who however always applaud vociferously; and card parties: where the stakes are anything you please—bullets and ball [was?] preferred; and gossiping parties among the elderly females, but alas! without the social cup of tea—it is too precious to give away; and pardes [sic: parades?] of all sorts, even to one of young men, who go about the camp at midnight, singing Indian war songs in a minor key. But in time all the noise ceases—all is still—every one is asleep, or trying to fancy they are, when a low, doleful moan is set up by one of the dogs, gradually rising into a weird screech, in which dog after dog joins, until they make up the most sleep-preventing melancholy-inspiring noise that man was ever blessed with in the middle of the night. It is annoying to be awakened by a great dog with a bass voice baying with might and main not a yard from one’s ear, It made me long for a good blackthorn.

We crossed to the left bank of the Souris on Saturday the 15th Sept., and ran a band of buffalo five miles from the river. They halted that day, and the following; for except when absolutely necessary, the people of the plains never travel or hunt on Sunday. About 8 A.M. all the people meet in the middle of the ring, and the prayers of the Roman Catholic Church are read. It is, I believe, customary for a clergyman of their Church to accompany the hunters, but this Autumn there was none.

From the Bout des Bois the brigade proceeded almost south, bearing a little to the east, and passing certain hills named the Roche Blanche, Loge de Boeuf, and others, and on Saturday 22nd camped at the Butte Noire, a hill about 40 miles north of Fort Mandan on the Missouri, having had some very successful races on the way. On Monday they ran again; and on Tuesday the hunters crossed the river where the buffalo covered the hills for a distance of about three miles, and great was the slaughter. Every one has seen or read of a buffalo run so it is needless in me to describe it here.

After the run is over, the hunter rides to where his buffalo fell, and marks each one; after which he doffs his coat and moccasins, tucks up his shirt sleeves, and proceeds to cut up. And capital butchers these men of the plains are, not very dainty dissections, nor quite the style of an English market, but just in the quickest and simplest way for themselves, and they do it well. Then up jingle the carts sent from camp; the meat is thrown in, and off they go to cut up another, and perhaps a third, or more if the hunter has been fortunate; after which they all jolt back to camp, to gladden the hearts of the women with their store.

The brigade remained almost stationary from Tuesday 25th till Monday 1st October, running whenever they had a chance. On Monday we moved, the hunters going on in front, as I expected, to meet buffalo, but we were disappointed; though to make up for it, we met the hunters of a small brigade of 100 carts from the Prairie Portage under Mr. Henry Hallett. We camped about 15 miles farther up the river; and in this place we remained 11 days.

After encamping, according to the usual way of spreading information in the camp, one of the Councillors shouted out with a prefatory “Ho! Ho! nos gens!” that the hunters would proceed the following morning with carts to the Grand Couteau de Missouri, about 15 miles off; that they would run there, and return; and that in the mean time pemican was to be made. They accordingly went, and returned in two or three days having had good success.

Our camp was now about 25 miles north of the Missouri, and 10 north west of Fort Mandan. Close to us, in the woods of the river, were twelve ruined log houses, which were built eight years ago, by some people who wintered there for two years; but I believe the Sioux found them out, and they thought best not to return. The Souris is a beautiful little river, its waters are clear as crystal, and flowing over a sandy bottom, bear a striking contrast [to the turpidity?] with our [fine?] old Assiniboine and its mud banks. The Souris takes its rise in the range of hills I have already mentioned—the Coteau de Missouri, a ridge stretching for a great distance on the left bank of the Grand River—and [runs?] with a singularly roundabout course into the Assiniboine. Both the Missouri and Souris are very much below the level of the prairie the ground suddenly falling in a precipitous descent of two or three hundred feet, with a perfect flat, varying from one mile to [two?] in width, to the [ascent?] on the other side. Through this flat, and bordered with a strip of wood, is the river, but it is evident that its bed at some time covered the whole valley between the heights. I found great pieces of iron in the Souris River, brought down, I fancy, by the water from the Coteau.

As I said before, we remained in our camp from the 1st to the 12th October. All this time the women were engaged in drying the meat and skins. The process of meat drying is very simple: a frame of light poles of about fifteen yards in length and five feet in height, is run out in front of each tent, on which the meat, cut very thin, is hung in large strips; and thus exposed to the heat of the sun, it takes from two to four days to dry. Sometimes, when the sun’s rays are not very strong, the process is expedited by fires places underneath the scaffolding. When the meat is nearly all dried the pemmican making begins: a hole of four feet by two and a half is dug and a large fire made therein. A row of green sticks is then placed a little above the ground and the meat put on to roast. When roasted, about 70 or 60 lbs. is thrown on a buffalo skin, and men and boys set to work to pound the meat, which is performed with heavy flails that soon reduce it to a brown shapeless mass. In the meantime, the grease has been boiling away like mad in a cauldron on another fire, and the women have made the bag of skin. The grease is ladled out on to the buffalo skin, and meat and grease being thoroughly incorporated is all shovelled into the bag, pressed down, sewn up, and the ‘Taureau’ is made.

Many were the Councils held in the camp—at least two or three daily—and grave affairs they were. They always met in the centre of the ring, and sat down in a circle with their legs crossed. Some hon. member would then make a proposition, and look round for a seconder, but he would have to wait. Every man sat with arms folded, with bended head, knit brows, and downcast eyes, ruminating for the [bare lite?]. At last, some quick-thinker would look up and say that he did not see anything so very wrong in the proposal; but that of course others there knew better than he, &c. &c. In about an hour a conclusion would be arrived at, when they would all separate. They met generally to receive the reports of the young men who had been out “on discovery;” and the [Areopagus?] then determined from their accounts whether there should be a “run” or not. We ran several times whilst in this camp, but after Tuesday, the 25th September, no more was seen of the great bands of buffalo.

On Thursday, the 11th October a general assembly was held to determine whether another band should be sent to the Coteau, which proposition was negatived by an overwhelming majority, who thought better to trust to luck and get the fresh meat out away home. It was accordingly arranged that the Red River folks should start homeward on the following morning, leaving the White Horse Plain people to return by another route. On that night the numbers of the camp were as follows: 107 men capable of carrying arms, 308 women and children, 322 horses, 245 oxen, 440 carts and 72 tents. The number of buffalo brought to camp up to that date was 1 152.

On the morning of the 12th, we turned homeward by the same road that we came. This part of the journey was made quickly, although the cattle were getting very poor. From the Butte Noire to the Bout des Bois, the prairie is very level and uninteresting, with the exception of the country around a hill name Loge de Boeuf (so called from a number of buffalo skins on its summit). At the foot of this hill which is very steep and rises abruptly from the plain, is a beautiful little lake, full of swans, geese and ducks; and from its top a splendid view may be had of the river winding through its ancient bed, with bold bluffs on the other side, stretching far back on the plain. From this my be seen the hill called L’Hivernement, from which, it is said, a man went to the Missouri and back in one day, very long ago. One can also see the Maison du Chien, and Win-se-a-kaw-esin, or the place where the Sioux made a great slaughter of their enemies once upon a time. Good drinking water is not too plentiful on this part of the road—the ponds being generally impregnated with diverse salts.

We crossed the river above the Bout des Bois on the 17th, and continued our marca [sic: march]. As we approached the end of the hunting, the laws against independent running and firing in the neighborhood of buffalo, were disregarded and it was every man for himself—kill who can: but after the 18th, no more buffalo were killed. On the 20th we crossed a fire which we had seen for two nights previously, and for that and the two following days the animals had only what little herbage was left in the few swamps that we met. We camped on the 21st at a swamp about five miles S.W. of Butte des Braireaux, and starting at two o’clock the following morning, arrived at Pembina River in the afternoon.

Next morning before sunrise, I bade farewell to the buffalo-hunters, and got into the Settlement the evening of the following day, the 24th October.”

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1861, Contemporary News and a Retrospective View of 1826

Featured image: Antoine-Louis Barye, watercolour and pencil, “Group of bison,” (c. 1810–1875). Source: Internet Archive/ Metropolitan Museum of Art.

[Donald Gunn],“History of the Red River Settlement, Sixth Paper,” Nor’-Wester (15 April 1861), 3:

“… 1826. As early as the month of January, reports had reached the Colony, that, in consequence of the unparalleled quantity of snow in the upper country, the plains hunters wintering out there, were starving; but such reports being as frequently false as true passed unheeded for some time. About the middle of February, however, evidence had accumulated of so unmistakable a character, that Governor Mackenzie was induced to send off parties with provisions and clothing for the sufferers. At this trying moment, all depended upon the officers of the Hudson’s Bay Company. Liberal contributions were certainly made by Messrs. Ross, McDermot, and Bourke—who were at that time in partnership, and doing business at Pembina—but of course the chief burden dell on the Hudson’s Bay Company, and right nobly did they administer to the wants of the destitute and dying. These were about 100 and 150 miles beyond Pembina, and the only practicable mode of conveyance was by means of ‘flat sleds’ and dogs. The labour was thus tedious and difficult, and the expense great; but everything was done that was possible for man and beast, and the despatch and diligence were such as to save hundreds of lives that must otherwise have been lost. Sympathy was strong among the colonists too, and private liberality contributed all that limited resources could spare.

The scenes of distress among the starving families can be better imagined than described. The disaster began in December. About the 20th of that month, there was a fearful snow-storm, such as had never been witnessed before. This storm, which lasted several days, drove off the the [sic] buffalo and killed most of the hunters’ horses. Owing to its suddenness, and the almost instantaneous disappearance of horses and buffalo together, no one was prepared for the inevitable famine which followed. The hunters, too, were so scattered, that they could not render each other any assistance or even, in some cases discover each other’s whereabouts. Some were never found by anybody. Others, despairing of life, huddled together for warmth, but, in too many cases, their shelter proved their grave. Others, again, were picked up along the road to Pembina—they having made fruitless efforts to reach that place. Those that were found alive had devoured what horses the storm left them, their dogs, raw hides, and their very shoes. So reduced were they, that some of them died on their way to the Colony, even though supplies had come to them. After much labour, anxiety, and expense, the survivors were safely lodged in the Settlement, to be there supplied with the comforts they so much needed, and which, a few weeks before, they affected to despise. The total number of lives lost was 33! …”

“The Sioux on the War-path,” Nor’-Wester (1 August 1861), 2:

“The Summer Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (1 August 1861), 2:

“Some of the hunters have returned to Pembina from the summer hunt, and through them we learn that the ‘running’ has been most successful this season. The buffalo were first found by this party at the Badger Hills, some two and a half days march beyond the Pembina Mountain, and here they had some profitable ‘runs.’ At the little Souris they came upon great herds of buffalo, 900 of which they slaughtered in the first race. After an interval of a day, the chase was renewed at the same place, when about the same number were shot down. Still the buffalo kept within sight, grazing almost within gunshot at times. Altogether during the seven or eight days they camped here they ran eight or nine times making a total of twelve runs up to the time our informant left,—and as the buffalo were numerous, and the hunters fortunate much more pemican has been made than is usual at such an early period. It is said there was no one in the brigade but made pemican. They encountered a tremendous hail storm at this place. The hail stones were extraordinarily large and came down with such force as to kill some of the colts in camp. Five or six hundred Assiniboines, Crees and Chippewas, tented alongside the Halfbreeds, hunting feasting and preparing themselves by religious ceremonies for their anticipated fight with the Sioux. To keep their hands in practice, they occasionally stole a horse or two from the camp of their neighbors—the indulgence of which peculiarity generally resulted in a demand for restitution on the part of the owners and the profession of an astonishing degree of innocence on the part of the thieves, which was, of course, followed by the production of the horse. The hunters are expected in three or four days.

The other party going in the direction of Beaver Creek have also been heard from, and are said to have found the game quite as numerous as the hunters in Dacotah.”

“Buffalo Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (1 November 1861), 2:

“The hunters have been coming in during the past few days, from their third and last trip of this season. This is what is commonly known as the ‘green meat party,’—those who go for fresh, in contradistinction from the dried meat and pemican. They have only been three weeks away, and have come heavily laden with ‘cow’s meat.’ We are happy to hear of such abundance. Our grain crop is rather scrimp this year, and it is well that meat provisions are plentiful.

This will still further depress the farmers’ market, which is very low already. Scarcely any beef, mutton or pork can be sold, as it is, although prices are at the lowest possible. Flour is the only article that is saleable. Red River has never been better cleared of money than at present.”

Go It Doctor

Illustration, “Go It Doctor!” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, 224 (January 1869), 156.

“The Fall Hunt,” Nor’-Wester (15 November 1861), 2:

“A gentleman, joining in the late hunt, has kindly furnished us with some particulars respecting it. From the Pembina Mountain the usual rendezvous, the hunters set off, about the middle of Sept.—105 riders and some 600 carts under the leadership of Mr. Wm. Hallett. The holding of a grand peace Conference with the Mettonaka (The Medicine Bear) a Sioux chief, was one of their first performances. He was attended by a dozen warriors, who all came to lend a hand to the pacification. There was plenty of smoke and palaver, and many were the pledges of amity exchanged. Buffalo were not found in any numbers till the hunters came near the Little Souris, where they had six races, in which 500 buffalo were killed. There they stopped a week making pemican, in full view of great numbers of wolves, who were prowling about in large numbers and with such audacity, that dozens were seen at a time, not half a mile from the camp. About 400 of these gentry were caught on the trip. Two days subsequently the hunters divided into two bands. One section of about 40 riders and 300 carts, went towards the Devil’s Lake, in the neighborhood of which they ran several herds of buffalo. Six hundred fine cows were killed, whereupon the bull’s meat which they had previously loaded up, was thrown away to the wolves. Scratched faces, sprains, contusions of all kinds, and dislocated shoulders fell to the lot of numbers of hunters. He was a bold rider and had an extra fine horse, who escaped performing a somerset in these wild, reckless races over ground, honeycombed with badger and fox holes and crannies of all sorts and sizes.

Lord Milton, J.D. Gemmill, M. La Grange and other gentlemen-riders were among the hunters; and although novices at this sport, acquitted themselves well, and carry home with them some fine trophies of the chase. A noticeable feature in this expedition is that the signal flag carried a Union Jack—a very pretty piece of bunting—which floated over the Bonsecours Market, Montreal, on the occasion of the Prince of Wales visit to the city. It was presented to the hunters by Mr. Gremmill.”

[See also N. Hall, “Flags and the Red River Resistance,” Provisional Government of Assiniboia: Acknowlefging the Contribution of Original North American Peoples to the Creation of Manitoba website (posted 8 July 2012; revised 11 September 2014).]

Illustration. “Making for a Tree,” Harper’s Weekly (28 March 1874).

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1862, Tourists described

Featured image: Illustration, “A Prairie Hunter of the Olden Time,” and “Prairie Hunters of the Present Time,” Harper’s Weekly (10 July 1858).

“Hunting Tour in the Western Prairies,” Nor’-Wester (9 October 1862), 3:

“The party that left this on the 22nd August, consisting of Col. Cooper and Capt. Thynne of the Grenadier Guards and Lord Dunmore and Capt. Cooper of the Fusileers, returned last Monday evening, the 6th instant, They were thus over seven weeks away. Mr. James McKay conducted them through their adventures, and did his part as companion and guide with that exquisite thoroughness and perfection that has long won for him the title of ‘Prince of Travellers’ Mr. McKay had five good men, and any number of horses and other etceteras requisite for a hunting tour of the first class.

Hind 1862 out for buffalo

George Richardson Hind, sketch, “Out for Buffalo,” (July 1862). Source: Library and Archives Canada [LAC], Mikan no. 2833704.

The original intention was to go to the Cypress Hills; but, even before starting, Mr. McKay was not very sanguine of accomplishing the journey, as the time was somewhat limited—the officers having to report at headquarters in Canada by the 2d November. Other circumstances also contributed to render the first plan not feasible. Their course was by Beaver Creek. At this point Lord Dunmore took ill, and the party was there delayed three days. It was expected that Lord Milton’s party might come up to them: in which case, the services of his physician would have been available for Lord Dunmore. As they did not arrive, however, after a three-days’ delay, they started. It afterwards turned out that Lord Milton’s party was eight days behind, although they left Fort Garry the same day as the heroes of this sketch. Leaving Fort Ellis, they pushed forward to the Qu’Appelle Lakes intending to go to the South Branch of the Saskatchewan. At these lakes, however, word came that there was a large war party ahead on their course. This was a band of Crees, Assiniboine, Young Dogs, and a few half-Cree Chippeways—in all about 950 tents. They were from the district around Carlton, Fort Pitt, Touchwood Hills, and Qu’Appelle Post. These allied bands were going to war with the redoubtable Blackfeet, and were by no means safe ‘customers’ for so small a party. The men were quite prepared to go on to the South Branch, if the officers of the Guards so chose. It was a question for consideration. After taking the night to ponder the matter, they concluded with deep regret that they would have to forego their long-cherished desire to see the farfamed South Branch and run buffalo on its banks. So, from the Qu’Appelle lakes, they changed their course and went to the Bruised Shell (four days’ journey): thence, turned southward to the Grand Couteau, and on to the Souris River. At the Coteau, they met in with immense herds of Buffalo—thousand on thousands of them—and here the Grenadier and Fusileers ‘ran’ to their hearts’ content, the sport, was new and was greatly enjoyed. From where they struck the Souris River, they followed it down to the Long Creek. Here, they fell in with a large body of Assiniboine—60 tents of them—and had to manage with great skill and courage to escape being plundered or killed. It was a foggy morning, and they were encamped on the side of a hill, when Mr. McKay’s eagle eye espied at a small distance on the other side of the hill, the immense stir and bustle so characteristic of Indian encampments.

James McKay, Métis legislator of Red River Settlement, photographed c. 1870s.

The moment was a critical one. Were they to ‘run for it’ and try to escape unobserved or were they to take the risk and chance of boldly plunging into the midst of the savage horde? After some parleying, and amid not a little sensation, it was resolved to face the danger in a manly way. They charged their guns, pistols, and revolvers, and made every preparation possible. They took into account possible trouble and counted well the cost and started. As good fortune would have it Mr. McKay knew the principal brave in the camp, as well as many of the underlings. He had traded with them at Fort Ellis, and had been always a favorite. There was, thus, one guarantee for safety, but how different it might have been, had he not been there, or had some rash person been in his place! In truth it is admitted by all that but for him, the Indians would have robbed them, and if resistance had been offered, bloodshed must have ensued. Our Red River readers are aware that, immediately after the Gold Expeditions started from here last June, a party of Americans passed through St. Joseph, in 60 waggons, for Oregon or British Columbia. They were taking Governor Steven’s route, which led to the Yellowstone, on the Missouri River, and Fort Benton, and thence across the Rocky Mountains. Well, this party was plundered by the very Assiniboines, in whose camp our hunting-gentlemen were now smoking the peace calumet. The principal brave told Mr. McKay that they had robbed them of almost everything—knives, guns, flour, &c., and that they would do the same with every party that would hereafter pass through their territory.

Hoonga Ea Sha/ Redstone, Chief of the Wadopana (Assiniboine/ Nakoda), photographed c. 1870s-1880s.

The name of the chief was Redstone; but the spokesman, as already intimated, was his head-brave. This is, in fact, the general, though not the universal, custom among Indians. The Chief preserves a profound silence, while important conferences are being held with strangers, while the head of his staff does the speaking. This personage, on this occasion, held forth in the following strain: “You, gentlemen, must be rich. You can afford to come far on a pleasure tour, and it is, therefore, no great hardship on you, if we insist on your giving us something, especially when in enjoying yourselves, you impoverish us.” “See,” said the brave grasping the skin of his warrior-breast, “See here, this is all that I have in the world, all that I have to cover me, and it is a hard struggle to feed my poor children; and you who have plenty, come out here and shoot down the animals on which we depend—you take the food out of the mouths of our children—injuring us most seriously, and all merely for your own passing pleasures. Some of you are Halfbreeds and natives, the rest Englishmen. The latter we would not willingly harm, and the former we regard as out countrymen—born of the soil and having some of the same blood that flows in out veins. These we cannot and will not harm, they have the same right on these prairies as ourselves. If I kill a buffalo, they can claim one half, and I the other. They can have half of everything. But, though Englishmen would receive injury at our hands only amid our most profound sorrow, we must warn them and all other foreigners off our hunting-grounds. We have to do it—we must do it—for our lives depend on it, and the lives of our children and their descendants. We let you pass this time for the reasons already given, and also out of respect to our good friend and father (referring to Mr. McKay) whom we formerly knew as an honest, upright friend to our tribe; but never come here again. It is our firm determination to rob or shoot all intruders who may hereafter disturb our humble patrimony, our fathers’ hunting-ground.” So spoke the brave, with remarkable fluency and with strong emotion. His breast heaved and his bright black eyes flashed as he poured forth his feelings of bitter indignation that men who have and to spare at home should come into their country and wantonly shoot their animals for pleasure’s sake. “What would you think,” he added, “if we went to your country, killed your cattle and destroyed your grain for mere pleasure’s sake? Would you not retaliate and shoot us down? Well, good friends, you understand our feelings. We feel sore. Never come again; and make known to all whom it may concern, that we are resolved to defend out territory hereafter against intruders. This is the last time. There must be an end to all this wanton useless destruction.”

Hind camp July 1862 mikan 2833693

W.G.R. Hind, sketch, “Camp,” (18 July 1862). Source: LAC Mikan no. 2833693.

So our friends got away. To show the good discipline that reigned in that camp, we might mention the following incident: just as they were going to leave, Mr. McKay discovered that one axe was a-missing. He represented to the head men that he did not wish to be robbed, and he was sure they were too honorable to allow him to be so shabbily dealt with. At once, there was a vigorous search and the culprit was discovered—the axe was delivered, and off came the party, after purchasing some curious pipes and arrows. From the Long Creek, they cut across the country to Grand Coteau again, once more to enjoy the buffalo hunt. This time, they returned to the Souris River. On this journey, a remarkable scene met their view. The White Horse Plain people that were killed this summer by the Sioux lay in their path. The party came upon the cart which the unfortunates abandoned in the Riviere des Lacs, in their attempted flight. This stream flows into the Souris River, near the Grand Canyon. Here a few of the White Horse Plain brigade had lingered, hunting with some Halfbreeds from Fort Ellis—their own comrades having already started on their return to this place. Those killed were a man usually called ‘Old Jewish’ and his son, a lad of 14 years of age, and Corbeau’s wife—four in all. The first three were killed while straggling away from the camp, in quest of wood, the last-mentioned in camp, afterwards. For no sooner had the Sioux killed the three stragglers than they rushed upon the camp and attacked it. This woman was holding an infant child at the time, and in her anxiety to save its life, she had all the time kept her back to the enemy. She received a bullet ‘in the back’ but not as among Roman soldiers, with disgrace, for a nobler sentiment than fear made her turn her back. When the three were killed, a fourth Baptiste Ledoux was wounded and escaped by cutting the horse’s harness of him and making away on horseback. These details they learned from the St. Joseph hunters whom they met on the Souris River.

Buffalo hunting 1862 Hind

W.G.R. Hind, sketch, “Buffalo Hunting,” (July 1862). Source: LAC, Mikan no. 2833708.

The Riviere des Lacs they followed down to the Souris River, hunting Red deer on the way. Thence they struck for the Turtle mountain, and came home by stone Lake and Pembina. On their tour they killed bears, moose, red-deer, and cabris, besides buffalo, wolves, and a host of the commoner animals. There was no accident but one—Capt. Cooper fell with his horse, while chasing a wolf, and was senseless for about ten minutes—and no illness but that of Lord Dunmore at Fort Ellis already mentioned The tour was a most pleasant one, and will long be remembered by the distinguished officers who enjoyed it.”

Illustration, “Dismounted,” in Henry R. Schoolcraft, Information Respecting the History Conditions and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States: Collected and Prepared under the Bureau of Indian Affairs, vol. 4 (Philadelphia PA: J. P. Lippincott & Co., 1860).

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Featured image: William George Richardson Hind, watercolour, “Buffalo on the Prairie,” (c. 1863). Source Library and Archives Canada [LAC], Mikan no. 2835757 .

Advertisement, Nor’-Wester (9 February 1863), 2:

“Movements of the Sioux,” Nor’-Wester (11 June 1863), 3:

From the St. Paul Press. May 28

Mr. S.H. Tarbell, a government messenger, arrived in the city last night from Pembina direct having left there May 18, bringing some important intelligence from the Sioux under Little Crow. He reports that celebrated chieftain at St. Joseph, about 30 miles west of Pembina. He was encamped there on the 18th, with about 25 lodges, and 110 warriors. Mr. Tarbell conversed with the Catholic Priest at St. Joseph who was in Pembina the day before he started. The priest reports that Little Crow had come into that region to get privilege from the Hudson’s Bay Company to settle in their territory, and to procure the cession of a tract for their occupancy. The Hudson’s Bay Company refused to grant this request, as they had no land to dispose of thus, and the Indian Tribes in their territory would not allow the Sioux to come there.

Little Crow said ‘he had served the Americans some smart tricks and would shoe them some more,’ He believed ‘every Sioux as dead, and that they will fight to the last.’ There were 800 lodges at Grand Coteau under Sweet Corn and Standing Buffalo. These two chiefs were disposed to make peace if it could be done with safety to their own persons. Number of Indians who had not been concerned in any of the outrages, are also anxious for peace, and are ready to give themselves up.

The Red Lake Chippewas had come into Pembina to make a treaty of peace with the Sioux. The Sioux had plenty od ammunition buried at Table Rock in the Sheyenne. The little boy who had been taken prisoner at the Old Crossing, was reported safe.

Hostile Sioux had been seen at various points recently. They had fired at the mail carriers at Otter Lake, and on Thursday five Sioux were seen there, The Chippewas saw their tracks, and the next morning saw the Sioux close to the horses. One of the mail carriers kept his horse tied during the night at a house, and in the morning saw the Sioux. He mounted his horse to ride away and was fired at by them; but escaped. Tarbell stopped at the same house on Friday night. The Sioux watch every trail and crossing in that region.

The party of noblemen who left St. Paul a few days since to hunt Buffalo were met 20 miles this side of Rice River. They were getting along nicely.”

W.G.R. Hind, watercolour, “Hunting Buffalo,” (c. 1863). Source: LAC, Mikan no. 2835755.

“The Hunters,” Nor’-Wester (30 September 1863), 2:

“Return of the Hunters,” Nor’-Wester (28 October 1863), 2:

“The plain hunters have returned from the fall hunt, well loaded. The White Horse Palin and Portage brigades went in the direction of the Souris River, where they found the hunting very good. from Mr. W. Slater we learn that the latter party camped at Red Deer Head, on  bend of the Souris, about a fortnight, and ran buffalo there daily, until they had as much as 76 carts in the brigade could carry. Rev. H. Cochrane, who accompanied the party for the benefit of his health, held services regularly.

The White Horse Plain hunters were a good deal annoyed by a Saulteaux chief at Red Deer Head, and ultimately the affair terminated fatally. The chief was very saucy, and told them they must no go on his hunting ground—that he was master of the plains, the buffalo were his cattle, and the Halfbreeds must not kill them. This he said to them the night of their arrival, and the following morning he appeared, very drunk, spoke in a similar strain, and asked them to remain there a day. They would not agree to do so, but started off when they were ready. The chief  then took out his knife, and stabbed a fine horse belonging to J. Swain, which dropped dead soon afterwards. He also wounded another of the horses with his knife, and ran after one of the hunter, whom he endeavored to strike with his knife several times. Seeing matters come to this serious issue, J. Swain ran after the carts, and, getting his gun, returned to help the man who was chased by the Indian. Swain fired and broke the chief’s right arm, whereupon the latter threw up his blanket and ran to fight Swain; but another shot from the gun of the latter struck him in the breast and killed him.

Subsequently, three of the chief’s relatives overtook the brigade and demanded retribution; but the only satisfaction they received was a thrashing. The father-in-law of the deceased chief went two days’ journey, on foot, to put in his claims for compensation and received a yard of red cloth, some tobacco, &c. This fatal affray occasioned a deal of insecurity, during the remainder of the journey, and may do so until his relatives’ claims are satisfied.”

“Buffalo Robe Stolen,” Nor’-Wester (25 November 1863), 2:

William Armstrong [attributed], watercolour, “Buffalo Meat Drying, White Horse Plains, Red River,” (1899), likely based on a previous work by another artist, or imagined, since Armstrong apparently never left Ontario. Source: LAC, Mikan no. 2833395.

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Featured image: illustration, “Wanton Destruction of Buffalo,” in W.E. Webb, Buffalo Land, An Authentic Account of the Discoveries, Adventures, and Mishaps of a Scientific and Sporting Party in the Wild West (Cincinnati and Chicago: E. Hannaford & Company, 1872).

“Buffalo Robes,” Nor’-Wester (31 March 1864), 2:

“The yield of Robes for this year promises to be much less than the past average. On the Missouri, at the different Forts, the receipts up to the 1st Feb. were very small. At Fort Union, where a thousand bales were usually taken, only two hundred and fifty had been received; and at the lower Forts, in the Sioux country proper, very few or none will be taken.

On our side of the line, the ‘take’ has not been much better. In the beginning of the winter, the buffalo were in the vicinity of the Qu’Appelle Lakes and the South Branch of the Saskatchewan; but before the middle of winter they moved up towards the Mountains in the direction of the North Branch, so that the heaviest ‘take’ will be confined to the Fort Pitt and Edmonton districts.”

cameo 3

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1865 Nor’-Wester Mentions

Featured image: frontispiece, Alb. Lacombe, Dictionnaire de la Langue des Cris (Montreal: C.O. Beauchemin & Valois, 1874).

From the St. Paul Press, “Notice to the Fort Garry Buffalo Hunters,” Nor’-Wester (26 April 1865), 1:

“Messrs. Jean Crapeau, Johannes Taurus and other commercial gentlemen living under the protection of the Union Jack, at Fort Garry, and supplying the hostile Sioux of the adjacent American territory, with powder and ball wherewith to shoot American Citizens, will please take note of the following


By the President of the United States of America

Washington, March, 18, 1865.

Whereas, Reliable information has been received that hostile [illegible] within the limits of the United States, have been furnished with arms and munitions of war by persons dwelling in a foreign territory, and are thereby enabled to prosecute their savage warfare upon the exposed and sparse settlements of the frontier. Now, therefore, be it known that I, Abraham Lincoln, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim and direct that all persons engaged in the nefarious traffic shall be arrested and tried by court martial at the nearest military post, and, if convicted, shall receive the punishment due to their deserts.

In witness whereof I have hereunto set my hand, and caused the seal of the United States to be affixed.

Done in the city of Washington this 17th day of March, in the year of our Lord 1865, and of the Independence of the United States of America the eighty ninth,

Abraham Lincoln.

By the President,

W.H. Seward,

Secretary of State

Messers. Crapeau and Taurus will observe from the above delicate and insinuating missive, that if they should happen, by any unfortunate accident, to get caught on American soil, while engaged in the lucrative commercial pursuits there indicated, they will be likely to get unusually quick returns on their investments of ammunition.

The powder and ball they sell to American Indians, will, it is greatly intimated, be returned to them with a velocity and momentum which they may not consider quite agreeable. We believe tat the British authorities of the Red River settlement, and the very large majority of Her Majesty’s subjects in that distant region would revolt with as much horror as any one at the thought of supplying these red rascals with the means of prosecuting their murderous war upon the American frontier. But as there are renegade Americans base enough to engage in this contraband traffic, so there are occasionally halfbreeds and others from the adjacent British Territory whose avarice leads them to run the blockade across the line with arms and ammunition, which they know will be employed in murdering American citizens.

The President’s proclamation is intended for their benefit, and they will now know what to expect if caught at this unneighborly and rascally business,–St. Paul Press.”

“The Annual Migration,” Nor’-Wester (5 June 1865) 2:

“A large proportion of the able-bodied male population of the Settlement has left it within the last couple of weeks, and it will be nearly two months before we can chronicle their return. Surely we are a nomadic race! Hundreds, men, women and children, are off to the summer buffalo hunt—scores of tripmen are away to the interior on lengthened voyages in the Hudson’s Bay Company service and that of private freighters—one brigade of 150 carts is, we believe, soon to start for Georgetown—and again hundreds of carts are off to St. Paul, to bring back the spring and summer fineries and necessities which go to make up our traders’ stocks. There is always at this season a general hurrying and making ready for these long journeys through the wilderness—journeys which are taken twice a year by many of our people, and any one of which would be of a character so novel and adventurous to most of our city-bred readers as to be deemed among the most memorable incidents of their lives. For the benefit of those at a distance, it may be necessary to explain that very few persons in these brigades are leaving the Settlement permanently. We are merely recording the annual ‘flitting’ of the inhabitants—some of whom are off to market the little distance of 500 miles, in the most primitive fashion conceivable in this ;fast’ age, to wit, with oxen and carts—others have gone to the limitless prairies of the North-West to hunt the buffalo—and they go a-hunting on the grandest scale, for their game is often found in such immense bands as to blacken the plains as far as the eye can reach.

By the brigades, of carts going to St. Paul. this year, the two Archdeacons of the diocese of Rupert’s Land, following in the steps of the Bishop, have left not to return—thus leaving vacant here the three principal offices in the church. Archdeacon Hunter, we believe, goes to England, and Archdeacon Cochrane will probably spend some time with his son in the States and Canada before crossing the Atlantic. Rev. Mr. Stagg, of Fairford Mission, also left for England, with the train.”

Notices, Nor’-Wester (3 August), 1:

“Trade of Red River,” Nor’-Wester (21 September), 2:

“White Captive Among the Sioux,” Nor’-Wester (21 September 1865), 2:

[On this trope see also Sarah Carter, Capturing White Women: The Manipulation of Cultural Imagery in Canada’s Prairie West (Montreal and Kingston: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1997).]

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1869 contemporary news and recounting of 1812-’13 & 1815-’16

Featured Image: photograph of bison in snow, Report of the American Bison Society 1905–1907 (1908), viii.

Excerpt from Donald Gunn, “History of the Red River, or Selkirk Settlement,” Nor’-Wester (3 April 1869), 3:

Describing the newly-arrived Selkirk Settlers’ winter experience in 1812–1813:

“… [A] small increase of numbers [in Selkirk Settler arrivals] added to Governor McDonell’s difficulties; provisions were not easily obtained at Fort Douglas [near the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers], and in consequence they could not remain together at headquarters. The colonists, after remaining a short time at the Governor’s residence, had to raise their camp before the winter set in and remove to Pembina to be within easy reach of the buffalo; the only source whence they expected to draw their supply of provisions for the now fast approaching winter; To Pembina they went, and in conjunction with his Lordship’s servants, built a few huts which they surrounded with a low stockade, and dignified the place with the honourable name of Daer. In the beginning of winter, scarcity of food began to be felt, and stern necessity compelled the new comers to separate; some went up to the post on Turtle river, others had to take to the plain and join the few men who were hunting the buffalo on those treeless wastes, and encamped along the different streams that flow into the Red river from the West.

The traders at that time were accustomed to hire hunters who supplied them with provisions. These hunters were either Indians or freemen; and at some forts freemen and Indians; when thus employed by the traders, each hunter had commonly a Company’s servant placed with him, whose duty was to receive the carcases from the hunter, to draw in the meat to a stage erected near the hunters lodge and to keep account of the number of animals, or carcasses, which he received, The meat on the stage that winter often drawn in to the Fort by men; at times by horses and dogs. Each buffalo, moose or red deer [elk] was valued at so many skins, and each skin was valued at so many shillings, Halifax currency; although most commonly paid for in merchandise. The Colony people, (or Hudson’s Nay people), for I believe they may be considered as one, were not furnished with a sufficient number of horses and dogs to draw in all the provisions required by the people at the Fort; and it has been related. that it was no uncommon sight to see from eight to twelve men harnessed like bests of burden to a huge horse sled loaded with (frozen) buffalo flesh, or meat. These poor men labored under great and nearly insurmountable difficulties, often travelling for days without snow shoes, through deep and loose snow; unaccustomed to the climate; always exposed to intense cold, and not infrequently overtaken on the plains by high winds and snow, which in a dew minutes fill the air with drift, leaving the traveller no alternative but of burying himself in a snow bank or freezing to death.

When these parties took their loads and turned for the fort they tugged for days at their unwieldy burdens. It is true, every meal lessened their freight, so much so, that when the distance was great, all they brought to the fort was very little more than would be required to feed themselves until they should return to the hunting tents again. So that those who resided at the fort fared but indifferently.

In their distress during that winter; the North-west Compan’y [sic] servants generously supplied them often with provision, and without such help some of the Colonists, and even some of the [Hudson’s Bay] Company’s servants would have perished with hunger.”

See also “Excerpts from Donald Gunn, History of Manitoba from the earliest settlement to 1835 by the late Hon. Donald Gunn, and from the admission of the province into the Dominion by Charles RTuttle (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1880),” posted on March 8, 2017.

Excerpt, “Information Wanted,” Nor’-Wester (10 April 1869), 1:

Excerpt from Donald Gunn, “History of the Red River, or Selkirk Settlement,” Nor-Wester (17 August 1869): 1:

Describing the newly-arrived Selkirk settlers’ winter experience in 1815–1816:

“… it was on the last night of the old year that the first fall of snow took place. Before this, many of the settlers, young and old, had to leave [Fort Daer] Pembina and to pass on toward Devil’s Lake where the freemen were hunting the buffalo. Fortunately for these wandered [the Selkirk Settlers] his Lordship had engaged to deed them for a term of fifteen or sixteen months or until they might reasonably expect to raise something for their subsistence from the soil. But the buffalo kept during thee mid-winter far out on the plains, so that the settlers had hard work to carry their tents on their backs [and] even a very scanty supply of food to support their families. Those at Fort Daer had to undergo greater toils and privations, all the food they could obtain had to be carried on men’s backs, at least over a distance of one hundred miles; at the hunting tents each man had to take one hundred lbs. of green buffalo beef on his back, and on top of that as much as would be considered necessary for his food by the way. The labor was new to many; the loads were heavy, the days were short—so much time was spent in returning that during the last few days of the trip hunger often compelled them to take liberties with that portion of their loads which they were expected to take undiminished to the fort, but all that could be taken to the place by that mode of conveyance was so trifling that it barely suffered to keep the few who could not go to the plains, from perishing of hunger. Those who remained at Fort Douglas [near the Forks of the Red and Assiniboine Rivers]fared still worse than those who were at Pembina. … When these families [left to relocate to Pembina and] arrived at Fort Daer there was not food enough at the place to enable those who were there to furnish them a supper. However, though unusually late, the snow fell at last. Horse and dog trains were called into operation and provisions were dragged to the Fort with greater facility and in greater quantities. The cattle were very scarce and the freemen’s horses became too poor to chase the buffalo, so that the hunters had to forego their service, and approach the buffalo by crawling; a very disagreeable mode of hunting, and far less successful than that of running the animals and killing them on horseback. An expert hunter mounted on a strong swift horse often at one race kills from four to eight, but when the hunter crawls to the herd and fires his first shot, the whole band become alarmed and throw their tails over their backs, scamper away seldom leaving the hunter the chance of a second shot at them that day. All who went to the plains in December had to travel on foot, and many of those who were then blooming maids in their teens and who are now grave and aged matrons shudder at this distant date, on recounting the miseries which they endured passing over the plains to their wintering ground; and after their arrival there their condition was far from being enviable; not altogether like the Gibeonites [sic: Gideonites] of old, reduced to the condition of hewers of wood and drawers of water, but closely approximating to that unhappy condition, the objects of those rude and savage people’s contempt. But during the winter and spring, many of the young men acquired some skill in approaching the buffalo, and being tolerable good marksmen, were able to provide to some extent for themselves which rendered them less dependent on the exertions of their hosts, and inclined the latter to form a more favorable opinion of their pale faced quests and to treat them with more respect.

Thus the winter of 1815 and ’16 was passed …”

Advertisement, “Furs and Buffalo Ropes [sic: Robes]. A. Moore,” Nor’-Wester (7 September 1869), 4:

“Prospects of the Fur Crop,” Nor’-Wester (26 October 1869), 4:

Advertisement, “J.C. Kennedy,” Nor’-Wester (23 November 1869), 3:

“Supplement: A Curiosity,” response to letter by A.M. in the Hamilton ON Times, printed in the Red River Nor’-Wester and Pioneer (23 November 1869), 5:

“As for [allegations of] the French half-breeds having no farms for a distance of ‘fifty miles long the Red River,’ it is a falsehood. They have plenty of farms, and fine ones too; and as for those who do not farm, they have always hitherto been occupied during the summer in the manufacture of pemican, an article which for consumption in the interior has no equal in nutriment and strength giving qualities, Pemican is the most nutritious portion of the bufflo, the moose, or the deer, preserved in a very portable form, and always ready for consumption. Our French fellow Colonist is not at all to be despised because he has not tilled the ground as much as others of us. He has sought out the occupation which has best suited his tastes, and hitherto that occupation has been almost as necessary for this Settlement has that of the farmer.

In conclusion we would warn our Canadian readers to beware of such letter writers as A.M. He is one of a class who speak of what they know very little about.”

Excerpts, H. McKenney, “Red River Market Report,” Red River Pioneer (1 December 1869), 3:

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1870 Red River Newspaper Mentions

Featured Image: Postcard, “Herd of Buffaloes at Silver Heights, Winnipeg, Manitoba,” photographed at the farm of Margaret Harriott and John Rowand (both of whom were Métis) (Victoria BC: T.N. Hibben and Co., n.d.).

Notice, New Nation (7 January 1870), 3:

“Trade,” New Nation (16 July 1870), 2:

“The Great Seal of Manitoba,” New Nation (20 August 1870), 2:

Advertisement, “Bannatyne & Begg,” Manitoban and Northwest Herald (October 1870):

Postcard, “Buffalo at Deer Lodge—a Winnipeg hunt [sic: Suburb],” photographed at the farm of Margaret Rowand and James McKay (both of whom were Métis) (Winnipeg: Barrowclough, 1905). Source: Peel’s Prairie Provinces, Prairie Postcards 2381:

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1876 Report

Featured image: “Herd of Buffalo on the Prairies,” in Henry R. Schoolcraft, History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, vol. 4 (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott, 1856), 98.

The work of J.A. Allen, excerpted below, represents an exhaustive study for the time. It receives no credit as inspiration for “passionate advocacy of the vanishing prairie bison” from Canada’s man of letters, Charles Mair, author of “The Last Bison” (1888), and “The American Bison,” (1891)—Mair instead claiming his insights spring from personal experience.[*] A comparison of both content and perspectives regarding causes of extermination, however, suggests Mair likely owed Allen something more than a mention.

J.A. Allen, The American Bisons, Living and Extinct, no. 10, Memoirs of the Museum of Comparative Zoology, at Harvard College ser. vol. 4 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1876).

[155–156:] “Extermination in Eastern Dakota.—As late as 1850 General John Pope stated that the buffalo ranged ‘in immense herds between the Pembina and Shayenne [sic] Rivers,’ and were ‘found in great numbers, winter and summer, along the Red River,’ being ‘frequently killed in the immediate vicinity of the settlements at Pembina.’[1] Mr. Henry Rice also states that in the spring of 1847 a party of Red River hunters, numbering twelve hundred carts, went in a body south to Devil’s Lake, in Minnesota (now Dakota);[2] while Mr. J. E. Fletcher states that twenty thousand buffalo were at this time annually killed in the country of the Sioux and Chippewa Indians, south of the United States and British boundary, mostly within the present Territory of Dakota.[3] The Hon, H.H. Sibley has given an interesting account of a buffalo-hunt in Eastern Dakota (then part of Minnesota Territory) in Schoolcraft’s great work on the Indian Tribes of the United States,[4] and incorporates therewith a detailed account, furnished him by the Rev. Mr. Belcourt, of the chase of the buffalo on the Pembina Plains.[5] It contains not only much valuable information respecting the peculiar modes of hunting pursued by the Red River hunters, but also important statistics respecting the rate of their destruction at the date of writing (1853).

Mr. A. W. Tinkham, in the ‘Itinerary’ of his route from St. Paul to Fort Union, in June and July, 1853, speaks of using the bois de vache for fuel on the Maple River, and reports killing his first buffalo on the Sheyenne [sic: Cheyenne], one of the chief tributaries of the Red River. At this time, he says, large herds roamed over the prairies of the Sheyanne River, and extended as far south as the South Fork of the Sheyenne. He also met with recent indications of the buffalo on the White Earth River.[6]

Governor Stevens, in speaking of the abundance of the buffalo on the Shayenne River, near Lake Zisne, the same year says: ‘About five miles from camp we ascended to the top of a high hill, and for a great distance ahead every square mile seemed to have a herd of buffalo on it. Their number was variously estimated by the members of the party, some as high as half a million. I do not think it any exaggeration to set it down at 200,000. I had heard of the myriads of these animals inhabiting these plains, but I could not realize the truth of these accounts till to-day, when they surpass everything I could have imagined from the accounts which I had received.[7]

According to Assistant Surgeon Asa Wall, buffaloes were still common about Fort Abercrombie, on the Red River, as late as 1858.[8]

Mr. W.H. Illingworth, the well-known photographer of St. Paul, informs me that in 1866, when he made a journey from St. Cloud westward to the Yellowstone, he met with immense herds for two days in passing the Coteau des Prairie, west of the James River. They seem to have wholly disappeared east of the Missouri soon after this date, surviving in Southern Dakota, however, between the James and Missouri Rivers, for some years after their extermination over the plains of the Red River. As already stated. they were exterminated east of the Red River as early as about the year 1850,[9] and, being at that time rapidly pressed westward by the Red River hunters, were wholly exterminated during the few years next following throughout the whole basin of the Red River, and even throughout the whole of the northern half of Dakota. In Southern Dakota, between the James and the Missouri, they lingered for some years later, but wholly disappeared east of the Missouri prior to the year 1870.

buffalo upper missouri

Karl Bodmer, watercolour, “Herd of Bison on the Upper Missouri,” (1833).

Region between the Upper Missouri and 49th Parallel.—The former existence of the buffalo over the whole of the region drained by the Upper Missouri is well substantiated by the evidence they themselves have left, and which exist in the form of well-defined trails and osseous remains. When Lewis and Clarke ascended the Missouri in 1804, they met with them at frequent points along almost its whole course, from the mouth of the Big Sioux to the Forks, [10] and subsequent explorers found them on its remotest sources. As late as 1856 this whole region was occupied, at least temporarily, by roving bands. …

[157–158:] Respecting the present range of the buffalo between the Missouri River and the 49th parallel, and the evidence of their recent occupation of this whole belt of country, I am indebted to Dr. Elliot Coues … The communication dated ‘Washington, March 2, 1875,’ is as follows:—

‘The time when the buffalo ranged in this latitude (parallel of 49°), eastward of the Red River of the North, passed so long since that the traces of their former presence have become effaced. The present generation of hunters in Manitoba and adjacent portions of the United States trail to the westward, by several well-known routes, in pursuit of robes and meat. In travelling from the river I saw no sign whatever until in the vicinity of Turtle Mountain, where an occasional weather-worn skull or limb-bones may be observed. Thence westward to the Mouse River, the bony remains multiply with each day’s journey, until they become common objects; still, no horn, hoof, or patch of hide. In the space intervening between this river and the point where the Coteau de Missouri crosses the parallel of 49°, quite recent remains, as skulls still showing horns, nose-gristle, or hair, and portions of skeletons still ligamentously attached, are very frequent. At La Rivière de Lace, a day’s march west of the Mouse River, there was a grand battue [sic] a few years since, as evidenced by the numbers of bones, the innumerable deserted badger-holes, and the circles of stones denoting where Indian lodges stood. Within the Coteau the most recent remains are the rule; and a hundred miles from such edge (nearly north of the mouth of the Yellostone) living animals were seen in the summer of 1873. …

In the western portion of the Red River basin numberless buffalo-trails still score the ground, with a general north-south trend.’ …

[160:] It thus appears that twenty years ago buffaloes were accustomed to frequent the whole region between the Missouri River and the 49th parallel, from the western boundary of Dakota, or the 104th meridian, westward to the Rocky Mountains, occurring even throughout the foot-hills of the latter … but that they are now restricted to the region between Frenchman’s Creek, near the 107th meridian, and the Rocky Mountains, over much of which area their occurrence is merely irregular or less fortuitous. …

[172:] Mr. Huyshe, writing in 1871 of the region about Fort Garry, says: ‘Buffalo are no longer found nearer than three hundred miles west of Fort Garry, and are gradually being driven further and further west by the advancing stream of civilization.’[11]

In a valuable communication respecting the present and former range of the buffalo in the British Possessions, kindly sent me by Mr. J. W. Taylor, U.S. Consul at Winnipeg, Mr. Taylor, under the date of ‘United States Consulate, Winnipeg, B.N.A., April 26, 1873,” writes as follows:

‘In preparing this reply to your note requesting information respecting the comparative numbers and present range of the buffalo, I have consulted Mr. Andrew McDermott, an old and intelligent resident of Selkirk Settlement, now known as the province of Manitoba. This gentlemen, when a very young man,—from 1812 to 1821,—and has since been a successful trader. His position in the country is attested by his recent appointment as the Manitoba Director of the Canada Railway Company.

My informant, in 1818, was in the midst of a large herd, only two miles west of Fort Garry, where I am writing. His party stood for an hour in the midst of the black moving mass, with difficulty preventing themselves, by the constant discharge of fire-arms, from being trampled to death. Now, in 1873, the nearest point where the animal is found is at the Woody Hills, upon the International frontier, three hundred miles southwestwardly, while you must go five hundred miles west to meet large bands, Formerly a variety called the wood buffalo was very numerous in the forests surrounding Lakes Winnipeg and Manitoba, the last survivor having been killed only two years ago, on Sturgeon Creek, ten miles west of Fort Garry. The wood buffalo is smaller than its congener of the plains, with finer and darker wool, and a superior quality of flesh, It more resembles the “bison” of naturalists.’ …

[174, quoting Dawson:] ‘I believe that, at the present rate of extermination, twelve to fourteen years will see the destruction of what now remains of the great northern band of buffalo, and the termination of the trade in robes and pemican, in so far as regards the country north of the Missouri River.’[12]

L.A. Huffman, photograph, “Killing Cows and Spikes,” (1907).

[177:] At the present time, as well as heretofore, those animals are most sought after on which the perpetuation of the race depends,—the young animals of both sexes and the cows. The older bulls are alike generally useless both to the Indians and the white hunter. The skins of the cows are alone used by the Indians in furnishing themselves with robes; the young and middle-aged cows are regarded as especially desirable by the white hunters, since they afford the best meat for the market, although along with them are killed yearlings, and two- and three-year-olds of both sexes; but bulls older than five or six years are not generally desired, though many have of late years been killed merely for their hides. The hunting season being chiefly in the fall and winter, the cows are then with young, and thus two animals are killed in securing one.

[187:] …very few robes are manufactured of the hides of buffalo except such as, in hunter’s parlance, are killed when they are in season, that is during the months of November, December, and January, and even of these are large proportion are not used for that purpose, and also that the skins of cows are principally converted into robes, those of the males being too thick and heavy to be easily reduced by the ordinary process of scraping. … [13]

robe press.JPG

Illustration, “Robe Press,” from “The Buffalo Range,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, 24 (January, 1869), 162.

[188:] Respecting the number killed by the Red River hunters, I have met with no satisfactory statistics. …

[192:] The meat of the buffalo is often spoken of as being dry and tough, and far inferior in quality to beef. This is in a measure true, the flesh of middle-aged and elderly bulls being of this character, that of old bulls being eaten only when none other can be obtained. The flesh of a young fat cow, or of a yearling or two-year-old bull, however, is not surpasses by the finest beef, from which it cannot usually be distinguished. …

[193:] The tongue of even an old bull is always regarded as a delicate morsel, and is often saved when no other part of the animal is touched. The hump is generally considered to be next in delicacy and tenderness. …

[194:] Pemmican, though made sometimes from meat of other animals, as deer, elk, moose, mountain sheep, and reindeer, is prepared principally from the buffalo. It is put up in bags of from ninety to one hundred and ten pounds’ weight (according to different authorities), and consists of nearly equal parts, by weight, of pounded dried meat and tallow. The method of its preparation has been repeatedly described by different Northern travellers,[14] whose accounts differ somewhat in respect to the details, as they do in respect to its flavor and desirability as an article of food. The Earl of Southesk[15] speaks of it as scarcely endurable, and Captain Butler says that when prepared in the best form it “can be eaten, provided the appetite be sharp and there is nothing else to be had.—this last consideration is, however, of importance.”[16]

[200:] Among the products of the buffalo, mention of ‘buffalo chips,’ or bois de vache, as the French voyageurs term it, should not be omitted. This material, as most persons doubtless well know, is simply the dried excrement of the buffalo, which the traveller on the treeless plains finds a very serviceable substitute for wood. … After an exposure of six months it burns quite readily, but is not at its best as an article of fuel till it has had the suns and frosts of a year. It burns in much the same manner as peat, and though making but little flame yields a very intense heat.

[202:] —The Chase. An account of the means and methods [of hunting] by which the buffalo has become so nearly exterminated forms an interesting chapter in its history, since they have varied at different times and at different localities, in accordance with the customs of the different Indian tribes, and with the wants and implements of the white man. …

Charlevoix’s account of the Indian method is as follows: “In the Southern and Western Parts of New France, on both Sides of the Mississippi, the most famous Hunt is that of the Buffaloe, which is performed in this Manner: The Hunters range themselves on four Lines, which form a great Square, and begin by setting Fire to the Grass and Herbs, which are dry and very high: Then as the Fire gets forwards, they advance, closing their Lines: The Buffaloes, which are extremely afraid of Fire, keep flying from it, and at last find themselves so crowded together that they are generally every one killed. They say that a Party seldom returns from hunting without killing Fifteen Hundred or Two Thousand. But lest the different Companies should hinder each other, they all agree before they set out about the Place where they intend to hunt,” etc.[17]

[203–204:] Mr. Catlin, in his ‘North American Indians,’ has described with considerable detail the methods of hunting the buffalo among the Sioux Indians … Being bold and desperate horsemen, they almost invariably pursue the buffalo on horseback, despatching him with the bow and lance with apparent ease. The horses, being well trained to the chase, as well as very fleet, soon bring their riders alongside their game. … Riding near the rear of the herd he selects his animal, which he separates from the mass by dashing his horse between it and the herd, and, riding past it to the right, discharges his deadly arrow at the animal’s heart, which penetrates ‘to the feather.’ ….

In winter, when from the depth of the snow these huge creatures are unable to move rapidly, they fall an easy prey to the Indian, who overtakes them readily upon his snow-shoes, and despatches them with his bow and arrow, or drives his lance to their hearts. This being the season for gathering the robes, it is also a period of great slaughter. The skins being stripped off, the carcasses are generally left to the wolves, the Indians laying in during the fall a supply of dried meat for the winter. Catlin has also given an illustration of Indians disguised in wolf-skins creeping upon a herd that is unsuspectingly grazing on the level prairie, where they are shot down before they are aware of their danger by their disguised enemies.[18]

George Catlin, print, “Buffalo Hunt under the Wolf-skin Mask,” (c. 1844).

[205–206:] The Indians of the Northern Plains [Cree] were long in the habit of hunting the buffalo by impounding them, or by driving them into an artificial enclosure constructed for the purpose, within which the buffaloes were at their mercy. … Audubon states that the Gros Ventres, Blackfeet, and Assinniboines often also took the buffalo in large pens in a similar manner.[19]

[207–208:] On the plains, where no timber is available for the construction of pounds, the Indians pursue a different but an almost equally destructive method. The hunting party, numbering usually hundreds of horsemen, select such a portion of a large herd as they desire, to destroy, and, surrounding them, thus cut them off from the rest of the herd, and prevent their escape in every direction by enclosing them with a cordon of armed horsemen. The slaughter is begun simultaneously on all sides; and … usually continues until the whole ‘surround’ is killed … In their casual hunts the Indians simply follow the herds on horseback, shooting from the saddle when in full pursuit, using either bows and arrows or the modern fire-arms with great dexterity.

Descriptions of the systematic expeditions of the Red River half-breed hunters have been given with greater or less fulness [20] … The distinctive features of these grand hunting expeditions are their magnitude, the number of persons engaged in them, and the almost military character of their organization. As previously stated, these expeditions generally numbered from five hundred to upwards of twelve hundred carts, accompanied by from two hundred and fifty to six hundred hunters, nearly twice this number of women and children, besides a draught animal (either a horse or an ox) and a dog to each cart, and riding animals in addition for the hunters. Setting out from Fort Garry, the expeditions for many years hunted over the Pembina plains, extending their trips southward and westward over the prairies and plains of the Red River, the Shayenne, and the Coteau de Missouri. The Red River half-breed hunters have undoubtedly done more to exterminate the buffalo than any other single cause, and have long since wholly extirpated them throughout not only this vast region, but also over the extensive prairies of the Assinniboine, the Qu’appelle, and the lower Saskatchewan. Their method of hunting was for several hundred horsemen armed with fire-arms to make a grand simultaneous rush into the very midst of the immense herds …

[209–210:] The dexterity in loading and firing on horseback while at full speed exhibited by these half-breeds, as well as their tact in recognizing their game on the field of slaughter after the killing is over, is represented as surprising. Formerly, when hunting with the old flint-lock musket, says Mr. Taylor, they would drop a charge of powder into the palm of the hand, thence into the muzzle of the gun, following it with a bullet from a stock carried in the mouth, firing as often as this operation could be repeated. The use of the modern breech-loading arms, however, long since rendered this process needless. They seldom leave a mark to designate their own animals, though some do, leaving first a cap, then a sash, and so on, until, as often happens, these means of designation fail, five or six to a dozen buffaloes being generally killed in a single run by a good hunter. Riding in clouds of dust and smoke, in company with hundreds of other horsemen, crossing and recrossing each other’s tracks, among dead and wounded as well as among the terrified and fleeing animals, it certainly evinces, on the part of the hunter, no small degree of discriminating power, after an hour of such wild, bewildering confusion, to tell not only the number of animals he has killed, but also the exact spot where each lies. Yet this, we are told, is constantly done.

According to Simpson, the Red River hunter, in winter, when snow was too deep to pursue them on horseback, approached buffaloes by crawling to them on the snow, disguised sometimes by a close dun-colored cap, furnished with upright ears, to give him the appearance of a wolf, which, through constant association, the buffaloes regard without dread. Towards spring, when the deep snow is covered with a hard crust, which, while it supports the hunter, proves a great impediment to the buffaloes, they are easily run down by the hunters, and despatched with daggers while floundering in the deep drifts, even women and boys assisting in killing the then almost helpless animals.[21]

small arms shooter

Illustration, “A buffalo Hunt,” from “The Buffalo Range,” Harper’s New Monthly Magazine 38, 24 (January, 1869), 154.

[214–215, regarding buffalo hunters at the time of writing:] Although successful in the pursuit of the buffalo, their success arises from the unsuspicious nature of their victims rather than from skill in the use or selection of their arms. The improved breech-loading United States musket is their favorite weapon, and most of them will use no other. A few employ Sharp’s and Winchester rifles; arms of small calibre, however, they generally despise. Yet with these heavy arms, used, as they are, at short range, only about one shot in three proves fatal, many of the poor beasts getting but a broken leg in place of a fatal shot. This is owing in part to carelessness or lack of skill in shooting, and in part to the inaccuracy of the arms. However good the gun may be originally, it soon deteriorates and is eventually ruined by rough usage. A few of the good hunters have good guns, take good care of them, and use them effectively, killing their game as readily at three hundred and four hundred yards as do the others at one fourth that distance. A rifle having a calibre of 45/100 inches is as effective a weapon against the buffalo as need be used, if accurate and skillfully employed, the fatality of the shot depending not so much upon the size of the ball used as upon the part of the animal hit. I have seen, for instance, an old buffalo bull shot entirely through the body at a distance of two hundred and thirty yards by a ball from  six-pound rifle, having a calibre of only 45/100 inches, the wound killing the animal almost instantly.

[215–216:]—Domestication of the Buffalo. Now that the buffalo is apparently so nearly exterminated, it is greatly to be regretted, not only that its ultimate extinction has been so rapidly hastened by improvident and wanton slaughter, but that no persistent attempts have as yet been made to utilize this valuable animal by domestication. … That the buffalo calf may be easily reared and thoroughly tamed needs not at this late day be proved. The known instances of their domestication are too many to admit even enumeration, but they have usually been kept merely as objects of curiosity, and little or no care has been given to their reproduction in confinement, and few attempts have been made to train them to labor….

[217:] Sibley observes, in speaking of the buffalo of the Red River of the North, that ‘in spring the calves are easily weaned, and when trained to labor become quite useful. One farmer, who had broken a bull to the plough, performed the whole work of the field with his aid alone.’[22]

[218, Robert Wickliffe, in a letter addressed to Messrs. Audubon and Bachman, dated Lexington, Kentucky, November 6, 1843, observes:] ‘old hunters have told me that when a young buffalo calf is taken, it requires the milk of two cows to raise it. … The young buffalo calf is of a sandy red or rufous color, and commences changing dark brown at about six months old, which color it always retains.’[23]

group with calf

“American Buffalo,” in Phebe Westcott Humphreys, A Natural History for Young People (1900), 142.

[*] Albert Braz, “Wither the Whiteman: Charles Mair’s ‘Lament for the Bison’,” Canadian Poetry Journal 49 (Fall/ Winter 2001),

Reference notes taken from the above report:

[1] Report of an Exploration of the Territory of Minnesota. (Congressional Reports, 31st Congr. 1st Session, Senate Doc. no. 42, p. 27.)

[2] Congress, Rep. 31st Congr., 1st Sess., House Ex. Doc., Vol. VIII, No. 51, p. 8.

[3] Ibid., p. 41.

[4] Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Vol. IV, pp. 101–110.

[5] The account given by Sibley as that furnished by Mr. Belcourt seems to be merely a translation of Mr. Belcourt’s account of Buffalo-hunting by the Red River half-breeds originally contained in a letter addressed by Mr. Belcourt to Major S. Woods, and dated “St. Paul, November 25, 1845.” This document was published by Major Woods in his Report on his Expedition to the Pembina Settlement in 1849 (Congressional Documents of the 31st Congress, 1st Session, House Doc. No. 51, pp. 44–52).

[6] Pacific R.R. Exploration and Surveys, Vol. 1, Governor Steven’s Report, pp. 252–258.

[7] Pacific R.R. Rep. of Expl. and Surveys, Vol. XI, pt 1, p. 59.

[8] Med. Statistics U.S. Army, 1855–1860, p. 34.

[9] See above, p. 114.

[10] Expedition, etc., Vol. I, pp. 67, 75, 77, et seq.

[11] Huyshe (G. L.), The Red River Expedition, p. 230, 1871.

[12] Report on the Geology and Resources of the Region in the Vicinity of the Forty-ninth Parallel, etc., 1875, p. 296.

[13] [H.H. Sibley, quoted in] Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United States, Vol. IV, p. 94.

[14] See Ross, The Red River Settlement, pp. 262–264; Sibley, in Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and
Prospects of the Indian Tribes, Part IV, p. 107; Hind, Canadian Exploring Expedition, Vol. I, p. 312;
Butler, The Great Lone Land, p. 153, etc.

[15] Saskatchewan and the Rocky Mountains, p. 302.

[16] The Great Lone Land, p. 134.

[17] Letters, Goadby’s English Ed., p. 68.

[18] North American Indians, Vol. II, pp. 249–257.

[19] Audubon and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. II, p. 49.

[20] McLean (John), Notes of Twenty-five Years’ Service in the Hudson’s Bay Territory, Vol. II,
pp. 297–302; Ross (Alexander), The Red River Settlement, pp. 255–264 ; Hind (H. Y.), Canad. Expl.
Expedition, Vol. II, pp. 110, 111.

[21] Narrative of the Discoveries on the North Coast of America, etc., p. 404.

[22] Sibley (H. H.), in Schoolcraft’s History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United
States, Vol. IV, p. 110.

[23] Audubon and Bachman’s Quadrupeds of North America, Vol. II, pp. 52–54. Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his observations and experiments has been repeatedly quoted by different writers on the subject of the domestication of the buffalo (see Baird, Patent-Office Report, Agriculture, Part II, 1851–52, pp. 120 – 128; Hind, Canadian Exploring Expedition, Vol. II, p. 113), and embraces nearly all of importance as yet published relating to the subject. In this connection may be noticed the astonishing dogmatism with which Schoolcraft, four years after the publication of Mr. Wickliffe’s account of his experiments in domesticating the buffalo, and three years after its republication by Professor Baird, asserts that while “the calf of the bison has often been captured on the frontiers, and brought up with domestic cattle,” and been “measurably tamed,” that “it produces no cross” and “is utterly barren in this state.” He alludes also to the statement of Gomara that it is susceptible of domestication, his statement being revived, Schoolcraft adds, and “in a manner galvanized by a justly eminent writer [Humboldt], after the uniform observation of the French and English colonists of America, disaffirming [!], for more than two centuries, the practicability of its domestication”; and further states that “all visitors and travellers who have spoken on the subject coincide in the opinion that the bison is incapable of domestication, and that it is not without imminent peril to themselves that the fierce and untamable herds of it are hunted.”—History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United Slates, Part V (1856), p. 49.

“Domestic Cow and Buffalo,” Schoolcraft, History, Condition, and Prospects of the Indian Tribes of the United Slates, vol. 4 (1856), 93:

~   •    ~

1880s’ historical recounting of 1815–1829

Featured image: “I saw more buffalo than I had ever dreamed of before,” in John McDougall, Scenes of Life in the Canadian North-West (Toronto: Briggs, 1898), 95.

Excerpts from Donald Gunn, History of Manitoba from the earliest settlement to 1835 by the late Hon. Donald Gunn, and from the admission of the province into the Dominion by Charles RTuttle (Ottawa: MacLean, Roger & Co., 1880).

Abbreviations: Hudson’s Bay Company [HBC]; North West Company [NWC]. The two companies were in conflict to 1821 when they combined, under the HBC name.

xiv:  “The locality chosen [for Red River Settlement] … proved to be a good one, and drew about it a more than usually intelligent class of ‘freemen,’ as the retired servants of the [HBC] Company were called; among them Mr. William Smith, an English worthy full of strong, honest points … [who. like the author] married a daughter of Mr. [James] Swain … Happily for the new farmers, these were the halcyon days of the hunters. Buffalo were near and plenty …”

135: [1815, prior to Gunn’s arrival] “the buffalo … were only to be found on the great plains which extend from the Pembina Mountains to the Missouri. It was considered most advisable to send the [Selkirk] settlers [newly arrived colonists from overseas, residing at Fort Douglas, Red River Settlement] to Pembina, which was seventy miles nearer to the hunting grounds than Fort Douglas. … We have said that no provisions had been laid up for the maintenance of … [these] expected settlers. … The result was that the sorely tried and distressed strangers had to leave Pembina and perform a journey of over one hundred and fifty miles over the plains to where the Indians and others were hunting the buffalo. These unfortunate people [from the colony] had to perform the journey on foot, in the latter end of December … those of them, who lived after, could not relate the sufferings of that winter without a shudder. On their arrival at the hunting tents, Freemen, half-breeds, and Indians vied in extending their kind offers to the new comers. … before the spring some of the strangers had learned how to approach buffalo and became excellent hunters …”

140 [At Pembina c. 1816]: “The Canadian traders had but few persons to feed at this place and were enabled to lay up a great stock of provisions procured by the chase … Bostonais Pangman, a half-breed, was in charge of the place … great quantities of dried buffalo meat … [were confiscated by HBC aggressors, so that the NWC men of both Fort Gibralter and Pembina] … had to seek asylum among their kind countrymen passing the spring among the buffalo on the plains. Mr. John Severight [NWC] arrived safely at Qu’Appelle … Mr. Cameron [NWC] was still prisoner in his own house. …”

196: [Spring 1817]: “The buffalo had left the vicinity of the forests to pasture on the open and almost illimitable plains of the Missouri followed only by their ancient enemies, the red man and the wolf—for the half-breeds had not yet organized themselves into those great hunting parties which afterwards became so formidable … and nearly annihilated the buffalo.”

197: “the French Metis (Bois-Brules) … [sold the] produce of their hunt [to the NWC].”

“Plan of land bought by the Earl of Selkirk from Pegius and other Indians. 18th July 1817.” Source: Library and Archives Canada, MIKAN no. 4149347.

202: “His Lordship [Thomas Douglas, 5th Earl of Selkirk], soon after his arrival in the colony, convened the different bands of Indians who occupied the surrounding districts. Some of these little bands were composed of the descendants of Swampy-Crees and Saulteaux, who, at the former but rather recent period, left the forests on the east side of Lake Winnipeg to hunt the buffalo on the plains of Red River, and were known by the distinctive appellation ‘Nachdaweyack.’ Besides these, there were present a considerable number of pure Ojibois [sic] or Saulteaux, who, about the year 1790, had left the forests of Red Lake, and ever since continued to roam through the forests and over the plains that surrounded Red River. The Crees were also represented at this great convention by their chief, who, it has been said, exerted all his influence to prevent the formation of the treaty on which his Lordship had so much set his mind. Without a proper understanding with the Indians about the land, the colonists would be continually laboring under the fear of being attacked by the thoughtless and ill-disposed portion of the surrounding savages.”

205 [Winter 1817-1818]: “The buffalo, on which they [Selkirk’s imported colonists] had to depend for their subsistence, were at a great distance in the open plains towards the Missouri, and the want of horses or even dogs to drag the buffalo beef to the shanties from the hunting tents was keenly felt. Such was the low state of their finances that they could not purchase any of these useful animals, and without their aid they could not remain any longer in the position which they took up in the beginning of winter; so, with heavy hearts and emaciated forms, they set out on their long, dangerous and laborious journey over the frozen, dreary, barren wilderness that lies between Pembina and the Coteau, or high land, that rises to the north of the Missouri, where the Indians and freemen were hunting the buffalo, where they [the colonists] arrived all in good health, but thoroughly way-worn and in very destitute circumstances. However, in a short time they were able to procure, not only a sufficiency for the supply of their daily recurring wants, but were able by industry and frugality to make some provisions for future emergencies.”

207 [Spring 1818]: “The strong and vigorous [among the colonists at Fort Douglas] went to the plains beyond to hunt and to take the proceeds of their hunt to those [of their group] whom they left at Pembina. Fortunately for all interested the buffalo were within a short distance, say 40 or 50 miles from Pembina. The hunters had their tents along the Salt Rivers, where they procured abundance of food for the winter, and the means of making some provisions for the exigencies of the ensuing summer. Early in the spring of 1819 the [French-]Canadian families settled at Pembina.”

Peter Rindisbacher, pen and ink wash over pencil, “The Method of Crawling Up to a Herd of Buffalos in the Winter,” (c. 1830). Source: Library and Archives Canada, Mikan no. 2835796.

208 [Winter 1818-1819]: “Many of their [the colonists’] young men had become good hunters, could travel on snow-shoes, drive dog trains … and were in other respects falling rapidly into the free and independent habits of the hunter. Urged by necessity, they left their habitations on the Lower Red River, and went to pass the winter on the plains beyond Pembina …”

211: “… at Pembina and on the plains beyond that place. The buffalo, on which the multitude of half-breed settlers and Indians depended for their subsistence, were in great numbers, but kept far out in the open plains, which rendered hunting and taking the provisions to camp more laborious than at any time during the preceding year, when the cattle were near the woods; in other words near the camp, as it is in the woods only that the hunters with their families can venture to make their place of abode during the winter months. Notwithstanding the distance over which they had to draw their provisions, they had enough for winter and some to spare, which they made into pemican for summer use. In April they left the plains and arrived safely at Pembina…”

239: [Speaking of NWC voyageurs, upon the 1821 merger of the HBC and NWC]: “The birch canoe was allowed to decay; the hardy and athletic men, chiefly half-breeds, who navigated it in former, and to them better, times, were thrown out of employment, and to support themselves and their family had to become hunters, and, from some cause or other, they soon became disgusted with their condition in the district of Saskatchewan, and by degrees came to join the little colony at Pembina, and finally moved down to the Lower Red River and to White Horse Plains. The wealthy class possessed horses, and provided themselves with carts of so simple a construction that each hunter, as a rule, could make and repair his own vehicles. The forest furnished ready to his hand the requisite material either for construction or repair, and each party of hunters carried along with it the necessary tools, which consisted of an axe, hand-saw, auger, chisel and crooked knife, being all that was needed for the performance of the above simple operations.

As early as 1822, the hunters being inspired with a well-founded dread of the hostile Dahcotahs (Sioux), never ventured to the buffalo hunt, except in formidable and well organized bodies; they commonly made two trips, one in the summer and another in the fall. The first and greatest party left in the beginning of June, and generally returned, if successful, with their loads of dry-meat and pemican in the month of August. For many years the Hudson’s Bay Company was the only purchaser of the produce of the chase, and in consequence could regulate the market to suit their own interest by paying any price they thought proper. Yet, discouraging as this state of the market was, the greater part of these people could not exist without going to the plains, and, very often, especially the first trip, they could not go to the plains without receiving supplies in advance from the Company. Thus business was done for some years to their mutual satisfaction and advantage.”

241: “Those who may be termed the floating population of this region, consisting of French and English half-breeds, with a few others, hunted the buffalo during the winter of 1823 and 1824 on the great plains near the Great Salt River, whence they brought great quantity of the green beef into the settlement on sleighs, turning the surplus into dry-meat and pemican, with which they descended the river on the opening of navigation to exchange for such supplies as they required to fit them out for the summer hunt.”

242–243 [1824]: “The hunters accomplished their two trips and were successful in both. The Hudson’s Bay Company bought up all the pemican, tallow and drip [sic: dry?] meat that the people had to spare; many of them sold the last bag of pemican and the last bale of meat, and returned to the plains to pass the winter among the buffalo. The few hunters who had houses in the settlement and who were desirous of passing the winter months in them, reserved for winter use the principal part of what they brought in in the fall; and when these supplies ran short, as they generally did, they had to leave the settlement and betake themselves to the lakes to procure fish, or buy back a part of the provisions which they had sold the preceding summer, always paying one hundred per cent on what they sold the same at a few months before; but so long as it was on credit and only to be paid in kind, when they would return the ensuing summer from the hunt, they were perfectly satisfied.”

Robert Hinshelwood engraving after Seth Eastman, “Hunting the Buffalo in Winter [1847–1848?], (n.s.: c. 1854?).

245–246: “We have stated above that the French half-breed portion of our population, with some of the poorer class of the Lower Canadians, passed their time summer and winter on the plains hunting the buffalo. In the fall of 1825, a greater number than usual went to enjoy the pleasure of the chase and luxuriate on its produce; but, unfortunately, their hopes were not realized. Rumours reached Pembina, in January, to the effect that the hunters had been unsuccessful and that they were destitute of food and in great distress. Rumours of every kind being common in these parts, and oftener false than true, they did not receive much attention. However, in the early part of February, some person who had arrived at Pembina from the camp, not only confirmed the previous reports, but showed clearly that the condition of the freemen was far more deplorable than fame had rumoured. Mr. Andrew McDermott [whose Métis wife was Sarah Mary McNab] and Mr. Alex. Ross [whose First Nations Wife was Sarah ‘Sally’ Timentwa] were at Pembina, trading under a license from the Hudson’s Bay Company. These gentlemen might sympathize with the sufferers, but they had very little else to give. However, they immediately despatched a messenger to headquarters to make the sad condition of the unfortunate hunters known to Donald McKenzie, Esquire, who held the office of Colony Governor and Chief Factor in charge of the Company’s affairs in the district. This benevolent gentleman not only made use of the stores under his charge for the relief of the sufferers, but added the influence of his high position and personal character to induce others to join in the good work. The settlers delivered their contributions of food at Fort Garry, and some of them volunteered to take the stores to Pembina, which was, comparatively speaking, easily done, as the road was good. But very few of those for whom the charity was intended had yet arrived at that point, and the nearly insuperable difficulty lay beyond, as neither horse or oxen could go any farther, and the only practicable mode of conveyance, owing to the deep snow, was by using dogs and sleighs, which greatly increased the labor. The distance some of the sufferers were from Pembina was nothing short of 150 if not 200 miles; but sympathy for them was general, and those who had dogs and trains offered their services to carry supplies to the relief of the famine-stricken multitude, who, it was well known, were pressing on to reach Pembina. Train after train was loaded with the provisions, and entered on the boundless snow-covered plains, over which they had to travel with supplies. However, they had not gone far before they met some of those they were in search of, and from them they generally received such information as enabled them to find others. Many of these intrepid drivers traveled over a wide extent of country in search of their missing friends, numbers of whom, if not all, owed, under Providence, the preservation of their lives to the dexterity and unwearied perseverance of those who may justly be said to have snatched them from the jaws of death.

We have stated above how suddenly and unexpectedly the winter set in and the great depth of snow that fell in the early part of it. The hunters had arrived at their hunting grounds and found buffalo, but from various causes were unable to make any provisions for a future day before the storms of winter covered the plains with snow three of four feet deep. Their horses had become useless in hunting and on account of the great labor they had to perform in obtaining their scanty food from so great a depth of hard packed snow, were in a few weeks not only unfit for any kind of labor but unable to procure their own food. While thus destitute of food for man and for beasts, between the 15th and 20th December, a great snow storm came on, such as has rarely been seen on those wide and treeless plains. This storm, which blew from the north, continued to rage during three days and four nights, drove the buffalo before it beyond the reach of the hunters and killed a great many of their horses. After the weather had moderated the camp broke up, a group or family going here, another going there, in hope of finding wood-animals; others made their way to the Devil’s Lake expecting to take pike by angling; but all their efforts to procure food on the land or from water failed. Then they began to kill and eat the few emaciated horses that remained; those finished, the dogs were next resorted to, raw hides, leather, and even their old shoes; some had been found who had buried themselves in snow banks for shelter from the keen blasts that swept over the plains; but unfortunately their refuge, not in a few cases, had become their graves. The heat of their bodies melted the snow, they became wet, and being destitute of dry raiment, fuel and food, were frozen in a body of solid ice; others had been found one here, one there—along the road that led to Pembina, dead and frozen, where, on being overcome by lassitude they sat down to rest and were relieved from all their mortal sufferings by the hand of death. Some of these were found very near to Pembina, viz: a woman and an infant on her back was found within a mile of the place where she had succumbed in the arduous but unequal struggle for life, after having travelled 100 miles in three days and as many nights. The sufferings of most of these people exceeded everything of which we can form an idea. One family, consisting of the husband, wife and three children, were dug out of the snow where they had been buried for five days and five nights, without food or fuel; the mother and two of the children recovered. The famished crowds that arrived at Pembina were fed and nursed for a few days yet so debilitated were they, that on the way down to the settlement it might be said that they crawled rather than walked, and a few of them died by the way. Thus, after unparalleled exertions had been made by those intrepid men who went to the rescue, the survivors were brought to the settlement and supplied with such comforts as their circumstances required; some of them had their feet frost-bitten, other, hands and noses suffered likewise. The common belief was that over thirty of these hunters perished during that terrible winter.”

251 [After the flood of 1826]: “After the subsidence of the water the hunters left the colony to hunt the buffalo, and returned with their carts well loaded.”

266 [1829]: “… at what has since been known as St. John’s [Parish, Red River Settlement], but was then known as Kildonan … [there were] four or five Indian families who had left their frozen forests and came to the colony to visit a sister, a daughter, or some near relative married to a white man. Once in Red River, they must go to the buffalo hunt, generally as servants [meaning hired], but while there they were in their element, feasting from nightfall to morning, and when they returned with the last trip they were as poor as they had been when they commenced the first. They were permitted to erect huts on the east side of the river, opposite the parsonage, where they passed the winter months supporting themselves by working among the settlers. … but after passing a few winters in the milder climate of Red River, and having acquired a taste for the good things procured by the buffalo hunt and raised on the farms, they could not be induced to return to their former hunting grounds …”

Gunn and Swain

Donald Gunn retired to Red River Settlement with his Métis wife, Margaret Swain, in 1823. The photographic portraits above were taken sometime after 1860.

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1920s’ recounting of the 1860s

Featured image: ‘Barve’, watercolour, “Bison Lying Down,” (c. 1810–1875). Source: no. 29.100.581.

Excerpt from Louis Goulet, ed. Guillaume Charette and Elizabeth Maquet, L’espace de Louis Goulet (1976; reprint in English as Vanishing Spaces (Memoirs of a Prairie Métis), translated by Ray Ellenwood, Winnipeg: Editions Bois-Brulés, 1980), 1, 13–15, 53–57.

“I came into the world on October 6, 1859 by the banks of the Gratias River … I was born right after my parents got back from a buffalo hunting expedition that set out from St. Norbert on the Sale River, went in the direction of the Missouri, and got as far as the foothills of the first range of the Rocky Mountains. From there they’d headed straight back towards the Red River, meeting it at its juncture with the Cheyenne River in North Dakota. …

By the time I was six or eight years old (the age where we start to have a clearer recollection of the past) it was between 1865 and 1870 and the Red River country had already changed a lot. For the past couple of years the buffalo had been nothing but a memory of days gone by. There were no more herds like those I remembered seeing in the valley. Quite a few little boys my age had never set eyes on one of those proud animals. A significant number of people were beginning to raise livestock and almost every family already had its little vegetable garden. Here and there you could see pigs and sheep, every home had its chicken coop and dairy cattle were popular. Every day there were more and more people sowing small fields of wheat, barley and oats. The great hunts were disappearing to make way for grain farming. …

As soon as the snow melted in the spring, we would leave our winter camp as we always did and head for another location, either father south or farther north, around Fort Layusse (Edmonton), or St. Albert and beyond. Finally we’d return to the Red River, where the buffalo were getting scarce. They would disappear completely in 1868, after the devastation that went along with the grasshoppers.

I’d turned nine years old the autumn before my father had decided to return to St. Norbert [Parish, Red River Settlement]. We’d been gone for two years. Our return journey was uneventful except for three or four buffalo chases first in the Cypress Hills and later at Wood Mountain. In both places we’d come upon what we called a foule, an enormous herd. Out caravan had stayed in contact with them, giving the hunters travelling with us time to kill around four thousand animals.

There were about five hundred carts in the caravan and it took us three weeks to strip the meat and make pemmican of it.

Once they were claimed, the killed animals would be skinned as soon as possible and dressed on the spot. The hides were hung on stretchers, which were a kind of frame made of straight poles, to be dried in the sun and smoked until they were stiff as a shingle. Then they were scraped with a sharp tool, on one side to remove the hair and on the other to clean off any fat, meat or other impurities that might be sticking to the skin. That last process was called enlever la maque.

The hair and the maque were were removed with sharp scrapers handmade from a piece of knife blade, a bit of metal hoop or a wood chisel solidly attached to some kind of convenient handle or grip.

Scraping hides was men’s work, but the women helped when they had time, and they were very good at it because they were so painstakingly patient. But usually, while the men were stripping the hides of hair and maque, the women cut up the carcasses, cutting the meat into very thin strips so that it would dry quickly in the sun lying on grids of branches over smoking fires of buffalo chips which drove away the flies and hastened drying.

The meat took at least two days to dry perfectly, after which it was put in skin bags or baskets made of wicker, rushes or leather. When the skins had been thoroughly scraped, plumées as the Métis used to say, they were called peaux de batterie or drumskins, sheets of hide out of which we would cut our tents, leather bags, thongs, whips, drums, even shields that could stop an arrow.

The hunting expedition did not stop until the carts were full, that is if the weather was favourable. We never killed more animals than we could dress quickly, otherwise there was a danger the meat might ‘go off’ as we said, become tainted or spoil completely. Without the prairie tradition of helping one another to get the butchering done before the sun got too hot or it started to rain, there would have been a lot more spoilage. Everybody had a job to do after the kill, whether or not he’d joined in the hunt. in those days there was none of this everybody out for himself like we see now. There were still some practising Catholics among the Métis. We hadn’t all been spoiled by civilization!

R.M. Ballantyne, illustration, “The Chase,” The Buffalo Runners: A Tale of the Red River Plains (London: James Nisbet and Co., 1891).

We stopped hunting when it was time to make pemmican. When the meat was dry enough to be brittle, it was pounded as fine as possible with a stick, a bar, the head of a hammer, or a small stone. The powdered meat was put into big cast iron pots full of boiling fat or, more often, marrow got by breaking buffalo bones and letting them boil.

As it cooked, this mixture of pulverised dry meat and fat or marrow turned into a paste. The thickness could be easily regulated. To this paste we would add dry or crushed berries when they were in season: saskatoons, wild grapes and chokecherries, a kind of small berry with a pit which grew in bunches and had to be pounded before it was used as an ingredient in pemmican.

Still boiling hot, the paste would then be poured into bags made of peau de batterie sewn up with tendon or rawhide to form an air-tight seal. The bags would be left to dry as hard as tallow, either in the sun as we travelled or over a patient forty, fifty, sixty years. The older pemmican got, the better it was. It was eaten in different ways: either straight from the bag with no preparation, or else roasted in its grease or boiled. Many people liked it boiled in dumplings, as a kind of stew called rababout. A bag of pemmican, called a taureau, was supposed to weigh exactly one hundred pounds. People who tried it for the first time said it tasted of suet, but after a while they’d get used to it and not notice, which just goes to show that anything tastes good if you’re hungry enough.

The strips of dried meat left unpowdered were delicious. We used to carry them in our pockets to nibble on while we were travelling, like biscuits or candy.

There were several products the Métis knew how to extract from the buffalo. First, we did business in skins as hides or as leather, raw or cured. The meat was sold dry, salted, smoked and especially in the form of pemmican. We supplied the whole country with buffalo tongue prepared in the same way, and we also exported some. In addition, the skins gave us material to make our tents, clothes, shoes, ropes and the babiche we used to strengthen our carts and sleds. Babiche was rawhide cut into strips thin as laces, very useful as cord for binding things.

The main market for distributing our products of the hunt was the Hudson’s Bay Company, which sent them to posts farther west or in the north, even to England. Finally, there was the United States, with St. Paul being the main outlet.

Our journey from St. Norbert to the highlands of the Missouri River had taken us almost two years. We’d left when autumn was coming on in 1865 and returned in July 1867. A plague of grasshoppers had swept over the entire country destroying the crops. I remember seeing the devastation, the woods and fields stripped bare, every last leaf and head of grain devoured.

People were completely destitute, waiting for help from outside: the States, Canada and England. The Hudson’s Bay Company had already distributed all kinds of supplies among the population.

It was obvious that the buffalo were disappearing before our eyes. Ordinarily, when we were coming back from the open prairies, all we had to do was climb a hillock or any height of land and we could see them here and there, grazing in twos, threes and fours. And there would be larger groups, closer together, as we looked farther away on all sides.

We noticed this time that we hadn’t spotted a single buffalo since coming down from the highlands on the western edge of the Red River Valley. The grass was high, showing it hadn’t been grazed as it normally was.

Heavy rains during the last two springs had filled all the little lakes, sloughs and lowlands, so there were plenty of ducks and small game birds, but also clouds of mosquitoes.”

Carl Rungus, illustration, “The Last of the Herd,” in Caspar Whitney et al., Musk Ox, Bison, Sheep and Goat (London: Macmillan and Co., 1904).

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1930s’ stories about 1850-60s’ hunting, and another story originating c. 1820

Featured image: John Arnot Fleming, “Prairie Portage,” in Henry Youle Hind, Narrative of the Canadian Red river exploring expedition of 1857, and of the Assinniboine and Saskatchewan exploring expedition of 1858 (London: Longman Green, Longman and Roberts, 1860), 145.

Excerpt from George William Sanderson, “Through Memories Window.” As told to Mary Sophia Desmarais Campbell in 1834-1935-1936. Archives of Manitoba, MG 9 A107, manuscript.

“I began my ‘bon voyage’ Sept 29, 1846, at or near Port Nelson, Hudson’s Bay. My grandfather had come from Scotland with the Hudson’s Bay Company when a young man. My father was also an employee of the company. … When my father’s term with the Hudson’s Bay Co. expired, he and my mother decided to return to the Red River Settlement, near where they had previously lived. … (my mother, who during our lifetime together, had always been my very best friend, counselor, and guide, was Elizabeth Anderson, a daughter of John Anderson also a native born Manitoban) … My poor father was drowned whilst taking one of the boats over a dangerous point. My mother and we children were going along the shore, when suddenly he disappeared and was never seen again. That was a long time ago, but to this  day I cannot look at a man rowing a boat.

When we reached our destination my mother and family settled down at Red River but not for long, the settlement was getting over crowded. My mothers father with his seven sons and sons-in-law, and their families and Mr. Peter Whitford with all his sons and daughters moved west to what is now Portage La Prairie [see image above]. … I can remember quite well at our first stopping place that they arranged the Red River Carts to form a barricade. My grandfather told us children to be quiet and stay where we ere told to, and we had to mind too.

… They all settled along the Assiniboine River and among these settlers I grew to manhood. My mother remarried, her husband was William Sutherland, a son of Cpt. Sutherland of the Hudson’s Bay Company.

Among my boyhood chums were Adams, Demers, Foulds, Birds, Whitfords, Pochas, and Andersons.

… Buffalo meat was our chief article of food. Every summer for weeks at a time the settlers moved to the plains and killed buffalo, dried the meat and made pemmican of some of it. They sold the robes to the Hudson’s Bay Co. I have been told that when the hunter first began to chase the buffalo any old horse would do, but in later years one had to have a very swift horse. It took a good rider and a man had to be quick to kill a buffalo. The guns were all muzzle loaders and the rider carried a powder horn on his right side, a shot or bullet pouch on the other, and the gun caps in his waist coat pocket. The bullets for immediate use he held in his mouth, The horses were well trained and could be guided by the motions and gestures, or leaning of the riders body. Being a cripple I had to forego the pleasures of the hunt, but I went often to the plains with my parents and saw the buffalo hunt and helped cut and dry the meat.

Once only did I ride after buffalo. My chum Jimmy Adams and I rode together, when we got near the … buffalo I looked at Jimmy and he had his mouth open, laughing at the old bulls running. I had to laugh too and dropped the bullets out of my mouth, consequently neither of us fired a shot. The Pochas, father and seven sons were at that hunt and it was a pleasure to see how they could handle their guns and horses. Talk about your moving pictures, I can shut my eyes yet and see in memory what the screen could not portray.

When a Frenchman took his boy out to teach him to hunt he got along side of the boy and his horse and whipped the horse, if the boy showed any signs of cowardice or fright he laid the whip on him too. Consequently the French were good hunters. I only know of one occasion where a buffalo bull attacked a hunter. He turned around and before it could be prevented he ran one of his horns into the breast of a young Indian, lifted him right off the horse and ran away with him on his horns. He must have got his horn upward under the lads ribs. In the excitement of the chase no one took any notice of the accident. I will never understand why they were so careless or callous. When the chase was over they began to look for the poor lads body and though they rode about for miles they could not locate it anywhere.


Stereoscope card, “The Famous American Bison that once roamed,” (New York NY: Keystone View Company, n.d.).

A herd of buffalo was a fine sight, the cows with their calves, the magnificent bulls, and a few steers [males without testicles] among them. An Indian told me that those steers had been the victims of an attack by wolves on the calves. Wolves were plentiful those days and it would have been an easy matter for them to maim a calf.

Buffalo were not easy to domesticate. Suza Pocha once brought a calf home from the plains. It was never contented with the other cattle, always wandering away. Once all the cattle from the settlement went about twelve miles away led by Suza’s buffalo calf. There was quite a to do over it. The old women were afraid they would lose their few cows, so indignantly they ordered Suza to butcher his buffalo calf, which he did.

… I never did see a real battle between the Indians and French but I was told of many by grandparents. I am sorry I did not remember more, my grandmother Anderson [Marie Anne Desmarais] was a French girl and here is a story she told me when I was a boy.

‘When I was quite young, about fifteen we were out buffalo hunting somewhere near the Quapelle [sic: Qu’Appelle] Valley. There were in our outfit about twenty white men, a few Cree Indians, several women and children. I had to help cut the meat and hand [sic: hang] it up to dry. One evening we could see five horsemen on a hill in the distance, my father, who was acting foreman of the outfit on that trip sent two of our own men to go and see who they were. When they reached them they learned that they were Blackfeet and seemed to be quite friendly. They invited them to their camp for supper, one of the lads did not want to go but the other was quite willing, so as he did not wish to desert his friend he went too. When the supper was over every one seemed to be talking at once. A young woman singing to her baby in French said “Go away as quickly as you can and warn your people, there is treachery afoot, they intend to murder you all while you are asleep” This girl had been stolen when a child by the Blackfeet and had a habit of singing French songs to herself. One lad said to the other one, “let us make a rush for our horses”, the other said, “there is no danger, I won’t go yet” so he stayed and was never seen by his friend again. The other one rushed for his horse got safely back to camp and gave the warning, so when the Blackfeet came at mid-night they were cut down like grass, our men were ready for them on all sides. Early next morning we could see what was left, them rolling their dead into water, they probably thought that by doing so we could not take their dirty scalps.’

… Another time out on the plains after buffalo, Uncle David [Bow/ Sanderson] took another of his jealous fits, I don’t know how the trouble started, he was in the tent quite close when suddenly we heard him yelling for ‘Marak’ (that was king [sic: kind] of a pet name he had for her). He was shouting ‘Marak, Marak, come quickly, Oh Marak bring the powder horn quick, I am poisoned’, the old fool had taken a dose of poison that he kept for poisoning wolves. Of course Marie hurried, got him his powder horn and a cup of water, he poured about half a cup of gun powder into the cup, filled it with water and drank it. I expect that cured him in more ways than one for I never again heard of Uncle David being jealous.”


Postcard, “Monarchs of the Plains,” (Rapid City SD: Rushmore Photo Co., 1915).

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1950s’ Account of Pemmican making

Excerpt from Malvina Bolus, ed., “Pemmican and How to Make It,” Beaver (Summer 1954): 53–55.

“When the White Men set out across North America, a reliable supply of portable provisions was one of the major problems. It was doubtful that they could live off the country. They knew something about preserving food, a necessity for sailing ships, but it was on the lines of salting and pickling. The resultant salt pork and hardtack were unappetising fare but they kept life in a man. The Plains Indians had a better solution to the problem, and one on which the fur traders and explorers came to depend. The answer was pemmican. The Cree word pimikan meant, roughly, manufactured grease, but there was a lot more than that to it.

Basically it was buffalo meat, cut (with the grain) in thin slices or strips and dried in the sun or over a slow fire. A smoking fire added flavour and was useful for keeping the flies off, though if meat racks were high they tended to be clear of flies. It was then spread on a hide and pounded by stones or mallets to become ‘beat meat’ which was tossed into a rectangular rawhide container (hair on the outside) about the size of a flour sack. To the dehydrated, crumbled meat was added one-third or more of melted fat and the bag was sewn up. The fat might be mixed with the meat before or after it was bagged. While the pemmican was cooling the bag was turned from time to time to prevent the fat all settling on one side. Compressed in a skin bag that was greased along the seams to eliminate air and moisture it would keep for years.

In the best pemmican, which was limited in quantity, the meat was very finely pulverized and only marrow-fat, from boiled broken bones, was used. For variety sometimes dried fruits such as chokecherries, saskatoon or service berries might be added. The pemmican bags were flattened for easier handling. At times rendered fat was also stored in rawhide bags, left round to distinguish them from the pemmican bags, while the marrow-fat, which though better tasting was comparatively scarce and did not keep as well as ordinary tallow, would be preserved in bladders. The bags of pemmican weighed 80 to 90 pounds and it was estimated that each bag accounted for two buffalo (bison). So high was the food value that three-quarters of a pound was a reasonable day’s ration but hard working voyageurs were more likely to consume between one and two pounds each in a day.

Moose and elk meat was sometimes treated similarly but the results were not so satisfactory. In some regions fish pemmican was made by pounding dried fish, mixed often with sturgeon oil, but it was more usual (as it is now among the Crees [sic]) for the pounded fish and fish oil to be kept separately, the oil in animal bladders.

David Thompson, in 1810, described pemmican in detail:

‘… dried Provisions made of the meat and fat of the Bison under the name of Pemican, a wholesome, well tasted nutritious food, upon which all persons engaged in the Furr [sic] Trade mostly depend for their subsistence during the open season; it is made of the lean and fleshy parts of the Bison dried, smoked and pounded fine; in this state it is called Beat Meat: the fat of the Bison is of two qualities, called hard and soft; … the latter … when carefully melted resembles Butter in softness and sweetness. Pimmecan is made up in bags of ninety pounds weight, made of the parchment hide of the Bison with the hair on; the proportion of the Pemmecan when best made for keeping is twenty pounds of soft and the same of hard fat, slowly melted together, and at a low warmth poured on fifty pounds of Beat Meat, well mixed together, and closely packed in a bag about thirty inches in length, by nearly twenty inches in breadth, and about four inches in thickness which makes them flat, the best shape for stowage and carriage. … I have dwelt on the above, as it [is] the staple food of all persons, and affords the most nourishment in the least space and weight, even the gluttonous french canadian [sic] (the voyageurs) that devours eight pounds of fresh meat every day is contented with one and a half pound pr day: it would be admirable provision for the Army and Navy.’

James Isham, writing fifty years earlier, comments on the quality of the marrow-fat, it being ‘… fine and as sweet as any Butter or fatt that is made, moose and Buffalo fatt they Reserve after the same manner in great Quantity’s [sic]’. He mentions that the meat, cut in slices, is dried on poles over a fire, which takes about four days, and then pounded or beaten between two stones till some of it is as small as dust. ‘Pimmegan’ he claimed, was ‘Reckon’d by some Very good food by the English as well as Natives.’

There were three ways of eating pemmican. There was the soup or stew called rubbaboo in which a lump of pemmican was chopped off and put in a pot of boiling water. If it was available, flour was added and possibly wild onions, sometimes a little sugar, occasionally a vegetable and a scrap of salt pork. Frying the pemmican in its own fat resulted in what was called rousseau (or rechaud or richot) and to it might also be added some flour or a suitable wild plant or berries. The third method was to hack off a lump and eat it raw, a slow process, since it dried extremely hard, but a satisfying concentrated food for the traveller with no time to stop.


Harry Bullock-Webster, “His first experience of pemmican,” Sketches of Hudson Bay Life (c. 1874-1880). Source: Wikimedia Commons.

Though they realised its worth, not everyone enjoyed pemmican, no matter how prepared. A party from Boston travelling to the Saskatchewan to see the solar eclipse in 1860 commented that

‘rousseau is by comparison with the others palatable, though it is even then impossible to disguise it as to avoid the suggestion of tallow candles; and this and the leathery, or India-rubbery, structure of the meat are its chief disqualifications. But even rousseau may loose [sic] its charms when taken as a steady diet three times a day for weeks.’

While it is known that pemmican lasts for a long period it is doubtful if there is any lying about now. At times a strange lump of organic matter is dug up and is claimed to be ‘fossil pemmican’. This is a trap for the unwary for in all likelihood this ‘relic’ will turn out to be a fungus known as tuckahoe (Polyporus tuberaster [sic: possibly Wolfiporia extensa, a.k.a tuckahoe, was presented as ancient pemmican—though a number of plant tubers were a.k.a tuckahoe: See “Tuckahoe” this site]) which is found in the prairie black soils in conjunction with aspen. …”


P. S. Boccone, “Polyporus-tuberaster,” Museo di fisica (1697), 300. Source: Wikimedia Commons.

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